Control, indeed. Put damage in front of it and you get a concise description of the casual conspiracy of silence that enveloped Ian Curtis’s bandmates, friends, and lovers after his suicide in 1980. Anyone who cares to already knows the ambitious and deeply troubled Curtis fronted Joy Division—the seminal post-punk band from gloomy Manchester that released a few classic singles, two still-astounding studio albums, and a compilation before transforming themselves (after Curtis’s death, at age 23) into the million-selling New Order. Wisely, or perhaps through simple naïveté, Curtis’s surviving protégés kept the aura of mysterious impersonality surrounding their lives and work largely intact until his widow, Deborah Curtis, published Touching from a Distance in 1996. A deceptively offhand memoir of her torturous life with Curtis, it revealed the previously suppressed details of the singer’s drug problems, his debilitating epilepsy, his philandering, and his very uneasy relationship with the fame he craved. It also gave fans a glimpse of the wry humor that was so much a part of Curtis’s conflicted psyche—surely something that helped to mitigate the pall that his mask of self-absorption and fatalistic gloom cast over the rest of his short life, and that helps to explain why Debbie stayed with such a miserable excuse for a husband for as long as she did.
But this humanizing element is almost entirely absent from Anton Corbijn’s bland Curtis memorial. Corbijn is an influential photographer, with iconic shots of Joy Division, U2, Johnny Cash, R.E.M., and many others in his well-traveled portfolio; more recently, he’s directed idiosyncratic videos for Depeche Mode and Nirvana. His long infatuation with Joy Division first went public when his photos of the band—made literally in Curtis’s final weeks—were shunned by the press as too strange, too arty; only after the singer’s death did these enigmatic images become widely known, making Corbijn famous in the process. Inevitably, then, Corbijn became the de facto image consultant to the burgeoning postmortem JD industry: Witness his risible late-’80s video for “Atmosphere,” in which dwarfish, robed, and hooded figures galumph through an arid sub-Bergmanesque landscape, intercut with stills of the young, then-clueless band. Corbijn’s later videos are often much less cack-handed than this one, making him an obvious (perhaps too obvious) choice for his much-postponed feature-length debut.
Questions of objectivity aside, Control is very beautiful in its re-creation of late-’70s working-class Manchester; cinematographer Martin Ruhe captures in pristine black-and-white the oppressive, post-industrial weight of a dying city in poignant vignettes of the cheerless council houses, generic offices, and seedy clubs that Curtis and his bandmates haunted. Despite these beautifully staged tableaux—which for viewers knowledgeable in the band’s history merely serve as pleasant diversions between the over-obvious musical cues (“Love Will Tear Us Apart” wells up just after Curtis’s first dalliance with “other woman” Annick Honoré) and the major biographical set pieces (the embryonic band’s fabled first meeting, various seizures, the Derby Hall riot)—almost nothing happens. And it doesn’t happen at a glacial pace, and in a stultifyingly linear fashion.
As with any biopic of this sort, the audience knows the story (and the score) so well that the only way to make a dramatization of it meaningful or relevant is to consciously contribute to its mythology— as Michael Winterbottom’s wondrous 24 Hour Party People did to the Tony Wilson/Factory legend, or Warner Brothers’ 1946 Night and Day picture did for Cole Porter, or Gus Van Sant’s Last Days did for Saint Kurt. With Control, Corbijn swaps true pathos for mere visual minutiae and emotional shorthand. Despite excellent performances from Samantha Morton, Craig Parkinson, and the radiant Toby Kebbell, along with a noble effort from pretty newcomer Sam Riley as Curtis himself, Control is like a wake where the guests forgot to bring the booze and, for the most part, have nothing very nice or even particularly interesting to say about the deceased. Curtis was young, fucked-up, given to petty cruelties, and—by his own estimation—doomed. After seeing this banal flick, who cares?