I must open this review by disclosing this little tidbit to reveal just how much I knew about Joy Division when I went into this film: at one point, I was enjoying the music and noted, from pure coincidence, how much like New Order it sounded. Well- says the I having read up on the group- duh.
I went into Control having heard warm recomme- ndations, though, in the interest of retaining some sense of freshness for myself, I listening to them with deliberate vagueness. Imagine how surprised, how disappointed I was, though, to discover that Control becomes remarkably stolid and repetative, that it reaches a kind of unnerving plateau as it unfolds, and reduces its internal conflicts- Ian Curtis's internal conflicts- into a cliched, simplistic choice between two women... two women, I may add, who, for all their screentime, barely register, and so, even if it hadn't been a rather dull choice to turn his artistic life into a romantic tragedy, the audience can't invest in it because we can't comprehend what either of these women bring to his life.
The film quickly eschews the trappings that the most prominent musical biopics of recent times- Ray and Walk the Line- set up by opening on Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) as an adolescent, the story rapidly, and scattershotly, seaguing into meeting his future wife Debbie (Samantha Morton) and experimenting with some pills he and his friend find in an elderly woman's house: both, as you might expect, are important later. Martin Ruhe's monochrome photography hangs over these scenes like the impending doom that will arrive: even this happiness is nothing more than empty, useless. The irony of Joy Division's name is that it derives, as is explained, from the prostitution wing of a Nazi Concentration Camp- hollow joy coming from the worst place imaginable. For its first half, Control seems to understand this irony; then it falls prey to it.
Control follows in those aforementioned Hollywood biopics footsteps by having the actors actually performing Joy Division's songs- and its in its musical scenes when Control is at its best. There's a rawness to the music, and to Sam Riley's voice, that seems to connect in a way the rest of the film can't; and these parts are also, somehow, when Riley is at the top of his game, capturing Curtis's oddly un-punkish movements as well as his weird charm. When Curtis later on at first refuses, then attempts and fails, to perform, its possibly the moment the hits us worst, for Riley has shown Curtis in the arena he functioned in, and now that its failed, so has he. But the film never shows us any kind of musical development- where did this music come from? Why does Ian want to live this life (he loves David Bowie, is about the only crumb we're offered)? How does these people function as a unit? Control is interested in Curtis, not the band, which would be fine if Curtis's life weren't ultimately reduced to such simplistic opposements. As it is, the actors playing the rest of Joy Division are interested, well-played but unimportant side-shows, living in Curtis's shadow.
I'm not sure where all the excitable plaudits for Miss Morton have come from, meanwhile- she's fine, as she always is, but for the majority of the film she's simply playing the traditional, cliched downtrodden wife role, and the film ignores her almost as much as Curtis does, which seems rather odd when you consider that the film is based on Debbie's own book about her husband. There's a terrific scene, though, at what I must now assume was about Control's halfway point, where Debbie finally confronts her husband, having spoken to his Belgian mistress Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara)- and its terrific because Morton is finally given the chance to actually do something. Kudos to her, though, for, sidelined and underwritten as her character had been, she doesn't abandon what she'd been doing with her- instead she feeds off it, for even as Debbie is demanding of Ian whether he loves Annik, Morton's body seems to be recoiling as much as it is trying to intimidate- Debbie is simply not made to be angry, to be forceful, at least not towards her husband. It almost seems as though Debbie is simply acting out of the motions of what someone should be doing in this kind of situation- its not that she doesn't feel betrayed, or heartbroken, but the way she would express this doesn't seem acceptable, and so she pushes herself into a feeling she doesn't fit. As Debbie yells at Ian, tries to make him respond, Morton has her hands and shoulders crunched up, somehow making Debbie's words even more powerful- she loves this man so much she has to force herself to shout at him.
But, ultimately, as Debbie emerges stricken from her house, I couldn't escape the feeling that none of this was the truth: wasn't it, always, Debbie's impressions of what her husband was and how she thought he felt, and really, isn't that why Annik is such a cipher, and why Debbie is so innocent and pitied? Debbie never really understood her husband, and that's the point of the film- and that's why it fails. Grade: C