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Control (2007)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Kind Of A Joy To Watch, Though It Isn't Anything New"
4 stars

The last couple of years have seen a virtual avalanche of musical biopics and there are two very good reasons for that–the existence of such a film means that the producers can quickly put together a CD or two of the songs featured in the film, either a repackage of the original tunes (such as “Ray”) or covers performed by either the actors (“Walk the Line”) or current pop stars (“De-Lovely”) and, more importantly, the generally complicated lives of the subjects at hand usually lend themselves to the kind of showy performances that have a tendency to stick in the mind come award season. However, there have been so many of them that have followed this template down to the smallest detail (so many, in fact, that a parody of the entire subgenre is due this Christmas in the form of “Walk Hard”) that a new biopic has to either reinvent the genre or do something spectacularly well for it to even get noticed these days. In the case of “Control,” it is definitely a case of the latter–there is nothing here that fans of the genre won’t have seen many times before but some of the elements are so brilliantly done that you may not even realize that the film doesn’t really have anything new to offer.

This time around, the subject is Ian Curtis (Sam Riley), a lad from Manchester who became an overnight pop sensation as the lead singer for the British punk/New Wave band Joy Division, recorded one of the all-time great songs in the mix-tape standard “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and then literally left the group hanging in 1980 by committing suicide on the eve of an American tour. (The remaining members of the group went on to form the group New Order.) We first meet up with him long before his fame when he was just a kid eking out a living at the unemployment office (a job he would still maintain even after his first burst of stardom) while harboring a fascination with David Bowie and a love for his best friend’s girlfriend, Deborah (Samantha Morton). Before long, he joins up with Joy Division, marries Deborah and everything appears to be going smoothly for him. Before long, though complications begin to arise, some expected and some not. While on tour, he falls in love with “journalist” Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara) and they begin an affair that is an open secret to everyone he knows, including Deborah. After suffering a massive seizure, he is diagnosed as being epileptic and is counseled by a doctor to “get plenty of early nights and stay away from alcohol”–not the easiest things to do if you are a rock musician going through the heady rush of his first success. As the pressures from his illness and affair, not to mention his subsequent depression, bear down upon him, he gets sicker and more withdrawn (at one point, he passes out before a show and the manager orders the ambulance driver to take his place on stage) and when Deborah finally gives up on him on the eve of the band’s first tour of America, Ian finds himself at the end of his rope.

One of the immediate problems with “Control” is that it lacks the kind of passion and energy that the better films of this kind usually deliver in spade. Part of the problem may be the fact that outside of Curtis’ specific problems, there is nothing particularly interesting in what we see regarding the development and rising popularity of Joy Division as the story unfolds–outside of including the band’s most familiar tunes, it seems curiously uninterested in the subject of music and what it brought to Curtis’ life. Another flaw, this one far more serious, is the lack of any real heat in regards to Curtis’ affair with Honore–we never get any indication of why the two are so mad for each other and why Curtis was willing to wreak his home life in order to be with her. (Of course, the fact that the film was based on the memoir by Deborah Curtis, who also served as one of the producers, might have more than a little something to do with that. Of course, if you are a stone Joy Division fanatic, there are presumably additional levels of enjoyment to be had here but if your knowledge of them is limited to “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” there isn’t much here that will inspire you to look further into their work.

However, there are three elements on display here–two major and one minor–that are so impressive that they make “Control” well worth watching despite the obvious flaws. The minor one is the performance by Samantha Morton as Deborah–the sight of her delivering an amazing performance is nothing new, to be sure, but she so effortlessly slips into her character’s skin here (even during her teenage years) that it actually took a few minutes for me to recognize her even though I knew she was in it. The first major one is the gorgeous look of the film–debuting director Anton Corbijn (who started out as a photographer before getting into music videos) and cinematographer Martin Ruhe have provided it with the kind of shimmery, satiny and utterly gorgeous black-and-white photography that will have even the most vociferous naysayers finally convinced that there are few things in the world as beautiful as properly done monochromatic photography.

The other major asset–presumably the one that will earn “Control” the most attention–is the lead performance from Sam Riley, a British actor whom will be regarded by most viewers as an unknown at the beginning of the film (his few credits include a couple of appearances on “Law & Order” and a scene that was cut out of “24 Hour Party People”) and regarded as England’s most promising new actor at its conclusion. Like Gary Oldman did two decades earlier when he emerged from obscurity to play Sid Vicious, he essentially becomes Ian Curtis here to such a degree that it almost feels at times as if we are watching some unusually detailed documentary footage of the real Curtis going through his daily routine. As a whole, “Control” may not be an extraordinary film in its own right but there is no way to consider Riley’s work as anything other than the beginning of what is sure to be an extraordinary career.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=16367&reviewer=389
originally posted: 10/26/07 04:41:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2007 Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 2007 Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

7/10/08 Charles Tatum A bit cold, try "24 Hour Party People" instead 4 stars
12/07/07 Ole Man Bourbon Good but forgettable. 3 stars
12/05/07 pauline frank ( from Manchester ) Brilliant,the Grimy North never looked so Kool! 4 stars
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  10-Oct-2007 (R)
  DVD: 03-Jun-2008



Directed by
  Anton Corbijn

Written by
  Matt Greenhalgh

  Sam Riley
  Samantha Morton
  Craig Parkinson

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