Overlooked & Underseen: Control (2007)
"Side effects include: drowsiness, apathy, and blurred vision...
I'm taking two."
I’ve been wanting to write about Control for about a month now, after hearing the classic Joy Division song, “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. I remember watching the film a few years back and I thought it was fantastic. I finally penciled it in to watch the week of the 15th so that the piece would go up on the 22nd. Little did I know that the day I planned to watch it was the anniversary of Ian Curtis’ death. He committed suicide on May 18th, 1980 at the age of 23. Also, this same morning it was announced that singer Chris Cornell had died. As I write this, his death was ruled a suicide.
Control, based on the book “Touching from a Distance” by Deborah Curtis, Ian’s wife, looks at the period of time of Ian Curtis’ life right before he joined the band Warsaw (later to change their name to Joy Division) in 1976, until his death in 1980. In those four short years, what we see of his life is filled with much sadness, pain, and regret.
When we first meet Ian (Sam Riley), he seems a care free young man who loves writing and David Bowie. He listens to glam music and is pretty sure of himself. He has a job, he’s good with the ladies and manages to snag his mate’s girl, Debbie (Samantha Morton) with some poetry and his good looks. They decide to marry but Ian regrets his decision almost immediately. He spends most of his time locked in a room writing. It’s at this time that Ian joins up with Warsaw, who’s members include Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), and Terry Mason (Andrew Sheridan). Soon after, they add drummer Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway) and change their name to Joy Division.
They immediately grab the attention of Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) who has a very influential television show called So It Goes where he highlights up and coming bands. The band performs “Transmission” live the show and Wilson quickly signs them to his Factory Records label. If this sounds familiar, you’ve probably watched 2002s 24 Hour Party People, the film about Tony Wilson’s life starring Steve Coogan. Yes, the same material does get covered but, no matter, it’s presented here in Control differently than was in Michael Winterbottom’s excellent film.
Things start moving fast for the band. They record “Unknown Pleasures” in 1979 and go on tour. While returning from a gig in London, Ian has a seizure and is diagnosed with epilepsy. This news hits him hard because he’s witnessed first hand how this effected some of his clients as a case manager for an employment office. He's immediately put on a drug cocktail that includes several powerful medications. These pills have side effects that would sideline an elephant. Ian is listless and constantly drowsy. All this, plus his deteriorating home life (they’ve since had a child) makes Ian spend more and more time alone, locked away in his private room.
Ian finds love with a fanzine writer named Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara) while on tour in Europe and when he comes home, he tells Debbie he doesn’t think he’s in love with her anymore. Debbie is naturally upset so Ian tells her he’ll stop seeing Annik. He doesn’t, though. He begins to feel more and more out of control. He desperately wants to be able to manage everything going on his life, especially his epilepsy but it is becoming increasingly difficult for him. On the brink of setting off on an American tour, Ian feels completely trapped by the circumstances of his health, his failed marriage and fatherhood. To escape it all, he took the only option he felt he had.
The gorgeous black and white photography from Martin Ruhe perfectly matches the bleakness of everything going on in the film. Curtis’ struggle in life, along with the seemingly miserable atmosphere of Manchester in the 1970s, are brought to full fruition by Ruhe’s work. Director Anton Corbijn is no stranger to filming bands. His CV is full of directing music videos for bands like U2, Depeche Mode, and Nirvana as well as directing feature films including The American (2010) and A Most Wanted Man (2014). Interestingly, in Control, most of the non-band moments are the ones that look most like a music video. The shots of the band are straight forward, for the most part.
The movie is packed with great songs. From David Bowie, Roxy Music, and The Buzzcocks, to several Joy Division songs. Most songs are covered by the actors except for “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and they are all pretty damn good. Sam Riley does a fine job in, essentially, becoming Ian Curtis. He had to adopt both the unique sound of Curtis’ voice, as well as master his on stage moments. Samantha Morton’s portrayal of Debbie, Ian’s all but abandoned wife, is heartbreaking. She loves Ian so much, she was there before the fame, before the epilepsy. Until she finds out he’d been having an affair with Annik, she had complete trust in him. Morton’s Debbie is a proud woman, who wasn’t going to stand for Ian’s infidelity. She loved him but wasn’t going to stand by and be the other woman.
Bleak, desolate, cold, and lonely, Control is all of these in both look and feel. It is really about the lack of control one ultimately has over their lives. The film is available for purchase on Blu-ray as well as being available for rent on several streaming platforms.