Too often, musician biopics are repetitive and overly reverent, full of rise and fall inevitabilities and unimaginative, fashion-perfect historical recreations. Control, the much-talked-about Ian Curtis story, manages to carve out a path away from the thick of its crowded genre with an unselfconsciously stylized look and comparatively slow action.
More obsessed with mood than factual realism, Control is literally a photographer's film: Director Anton Corbijn famously photographed Curtis' band Joy Division in the late '70s, helping to jumpstart a career that eventually led to directing music videos. Control is Corbijn's first feature film, and he's keeping his cards close to his chest with familiar subject matter.
Based on the memoir of Curtis' widow, Deborah Curtis' Touching From A Distance, the film is surprisingly lacking in sympathy towards its alleged heroine (played here by Samantha Morton), who was cruelly neglected during her marriage to Curtis (Sam Riley), as was their daughter. The troubled, epileptic Curtis is not granted the favor of having his warts disguised, but the audience is made to love him despite his inadequacies and pathetic inability to resolve his relationships with his wife and ill-at-ease mistress Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara). Curtis' emotional distance is echoed in Control, which does not have an immediately striking emotional impact, but rather a lingering, haunting effect.
Perhaps Corbijn's greatest success in adapting Curtis' story to film is in Control's stylistic similarity to Joy Division's music, which on the surface is stubbornly simplistic yet moodily compelling. Likewise, the film's look is stark and almost old fashioned, but quietly, darkly powerful. Shot in black and white, the surprisingly everyman events of Curtis' life are both the perfect backdrop for and seemingly disconnected from his music. The ultimate effect is a bit cold; compared to the all-together-now power of garden-variety music movies, the songs of Control, of Joy Division, are all the more isolating and queasy. Which could not be more appropriate.