Anton Corbijn has had quite the career. Photographing and filming Joy Division, David Bowie, Nirvana, Miles Davis, Björk, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Metallica, Robert De Niro, Stephen Hawking, Elvis Costello, Echo & the Bunnymen, Morrissey and Clint Eastwood here and there, and then collaborating with the likes of David Lynch and Johnny Depp elsewhere. And, with U2 and Depeche Mode having entrusted him with their bands’ visuals for a few decades, I think it’s fair to say that there was a lot of interest generated around his first feature length film, Control.
It’s no wonder Corbijn went on to direct Arcade Fire, The Killers and collaborated with Clooney and just about everyone else you could possibly love after this 2007 debut. Offering the deep, black and white visuals that have become his statement, Corbijn has crafted a stunningly beautiful, haunting biopic of Joy Division’s lead, Ian Curtis.
Control has a controlled (soz) patience, the camera never overplaying or underplaying the performances. Instead, it rests solemnly as the tumultuous life of Curtis unfolds, and it is this tranquillity which draws the true emotions of the characters out and the audience’s in. Matt Greenhalgh’s screenplay meanwhile (having been based upon Curtis’ widow’s biography of him) is brought to life with thundering Mancunian accents and the humour that Northern bluntness arouses.
Sam Riley leads the cast, giving Curtis what could have easily been abandoned: dignity. In the film’s most intimate moments, the anguished medley of angst, depression and loneliness give reason to what an outsider may assume to be a cowardly depression, and even when Riley isn’t the focus of the scene, his brooding, calculating eyes still manage to nab the attention. It is easy to become consumed by the very emotion eating away at Curtis, and the light, comic distraction—provided mainly in the form of Toby Kebbell as Rob Gretton, who is, incidentally, brilliant—fails to take away from the pathos bred by Curtis. Samantha Morton’s Deborah Curtis also succeeds in wrenching pathos, and it soon becomes visible that both Ian and Deborah are victims to themselves, youthful naivety and fame.
Meanwhile, underneath the film’s frank and kitchen-sink realist exterior, there runs a tone of distress which woozily builds its way up into a climactic frenzy. It manages to tear through any happy sentiment expressed in the film, tinting it with a bleakly humorous irony. Here, Corbijn presents a world that is absolutely seen through Curtis’ eyes. The film is respectably sensitive to him, but at the same time, it doesn’t refrain from showing what a dick he was every now and then.
And, given the fact that the film is the biopic of a great musician, the soundtrack remains far from disappointing. Running with the moody bass riffs of “She’s Lost Control”, the film spirals into a gorgeous symphony of everything Joy Division, throwing in its sister, New Order, and numbers from David Bowie, The Killers and The Velvet Underground. Even without Curtis’ fascinating life story, Control is divine purely from a musical perspective. Corbijn has created his most potent film to date, his photographic talent visible in every beautifully placed frame and intimate portrait. It is a must-watch for any self-declared music fan, regardless of genre preferences, for it exposes the achingly demanding nature of the music industry and the people—the self-declared fans--it feeds.