Eamonn McGurk is moved by the portrayal of troubled Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis
Anton Corbijn's moving film about the life of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis escapes the trap of being another movie about a 'tortured genius'. Corbijn, a renowned photographer, is used to placing rock stars in a two dimensional environment, but excels at transferring Curtis to the screen and uses the third dimension to provide depth to a complex character.
These complexities were always going to make the decision of who should play Curtis a difficult one. Exuding coolness, the young Sam Riley gives an outstanding performance in the lead role. The image of Riley walking along the grim northern streets of Macclesfield with a cigarette in his mouth would not look out of place in Corbijn's portfolio.
However the coolness is very much on the exterior, and Riley brings an emotional depth to Curtis that helps us understand the turmoil he undergoes as he struggles with fame, love and physical illness.
Like Curtis, Riley is at his most engaging on stage. Dressed in Curtis' trademark shirt, he brilliantly captures the singer's mannerisms, including the iconic 'jogging on the spot' dancing.
The film audience are entranced, and for those who never attended a Joy Division gig, Riley blurs the artistic line between performance and reality. It's hard to imagine that it's not Joy Division playing live. His physical resemblance to Curtis is complemented by raw energy and passion, and Curtis' charisma captivates the auditorium just as it would have done in a live venue.
Off stage, Curtis is portrayed as an idealistic schoolboy inspired by artists such as Bowie and Blake, destined to craft lyrics that will allow him to escape, in both a physical and mental sense, the bleak town of Macclesfield where he grew up.
Corbijn manages to capture the grim reality of 1970s Macclesfield, and by shooting entirely in black and white gives the picture an authentic sense of time and space, allowing the audience to enter Curtis' world in its entirety.
We see shots that are very similar to stills, of Curtis's bedroom, the streets around his house, and the sparse countryside surrounding the industrial town. We also see Curtis working in a Jobs & Benefits office, which debunks the rock 'n' roll image, but stresses the fact that Curtis was much more than a troubled rock star.
The one constant through Curtis's adolescence, working life, and time as lead singer of Joy Division is Deborah, married when both were 19. Played by Samantha Morton, one of Britain's finest actresses, she portrays the strong, loyal wife who remains deeply in love with Curtis despite his physical and emotional problems and imminent fame.
Curtis appears to have all that he wants - not sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll but a wife, child and a chance to emulate his inspiration: Bowie. Signed to the famous indie label of the time, Factory records, Joy Division were the label's stars and following the release of their debut album, Unknown Pleasures, looked set to break out of the UK post-punk scene.
For both Curtis and the band, however, things begin to unravel. Curtis is diagnosed with epilepsy, which heightens his paranoia, and indulges in an extramarital affair with Annik, a beautiful young French fanzine writer (played by Romanian actress Alexandra Maria.) Annik offers Curtis everything Deborah doesn't. She gives him a chance to access the world outside of Macclesfield, a world he is trying to get to through his lyrics.
The soundtrack to the film uses songs such as 'Transmission', 'She's Lost Control' and, of course, 'Love Will Tear us Apart' to give the sense of Curtis's state of mind at various stages throughout his life - a life ended tragically with his suicide at just 23 years of age. Corbijn is dealing with a dark and difficult subject, but unlike Deborah Curtis' book (on which the film is based), it's not claustrophobic.
Typically Northern humor brings a sense of fun and joy to the picture, especially in the scenes involving manager Rob Gretton, played by Tony Kebell. In one memorable scene, after Curtis has suffered a major seizure onstage, Gretton turns to him and says: 'It could be worse Ian, you could be the lead singer of The Fall.'
The film finishes with the haunting, beautiful 'Atmosphere'. I walked away from the cinema feeling saddened that Curtis was taken away from us at such a young age, but delighted that Control gives us the chance to appreciate and get to know him better.