There’s already been so much said, written and broadcast about Joy Division and the Factory Records story that you could be forgiven for not having the patience to wade through yet another chapter in the story of Tony Wilson and the rest of the gobby cast that strode the Manchester stage of the ’70s and ’80s. From ‘24 Hour Party People’ to the recent coverage of Wilson’s death to a new documentary on the box only the other week, this tale of bands, big egos and bad business sense has an appeal way beyond its roots. The photographer Anton Corbijn has now added ‘Control’ to the throng, and his contribution – a black and white study of the life and death of Ian Curtis – is more sombre and grounded and less playful than the comic spins we’ve come to expect. Watching the film, one is left with a sense of Ian Curtis as the subject for an intense photographic study as much as a figure ripe for probing drama. There are plenty of shots of Curtis walking down the street or smoking a fag or looking out of windows. The film’s real energy and excitement are in the live scenes, which are unfussy, extended and electric.
Suicide and the lives of artists are two of the toughest subjects for cinema to grapple with, and ‘Control’ squares up bravely to both. We’ve seen Curtis played before as an unlikeable, spikey presence by Sean Harris in ‘24 Hour Party People’. In contrast, Sam Riley’s Curtis is a different animal. He’s quiet, brooding, passive, unless he’s on stage, when Riley nails his possessed, jolty act. Those familiar with Winterbottom’s earlier film will recognise much here: Curtis demanding the attention of Tony Wilson in a pub; the signing of the band’s record contract in blood; their appearance on Granada TV; skinheads invading a gig; Curtis’ epilepsy; his suicide.
What’s new is that Corbijn is also concerned with Curtis’ home life. This is hardly surprising seeing as the film has its origins in ‘Touching From a Distance’, the memoir of Deborah Curtis, his wife, and the film’s main interest is the strain of marriage on a young man who got hitched early and then falls in love with a Belgian groupie, Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), who, when interviewing the band for a fanzine, utters the delicious line: ‘Tell me about Macclesfield’.
Corbijn’s film may be about the domestic life of Curtis as much as the public, yet he keeps a distance from the grit of the story. To his credit, this means that no wild biographical ideas plague his film, but there’s also a gap between the film and the filmed that’s a little unsatisfying. Maybe it’s the most honest approach – who, really, ever knows why someone kills themselves? There are suggestions here, but nothing so crude as a definitive answer.