Control covers seven years in Ian Curtis’s life, from the age of sixteen to his suicide at twenty-three. In Macclesfield, North-West England, in 1973, Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) is bored at school, intent to stay in his bedroom and listen to David Bowie records. Through a friend he meets Debbie (Samantha Morton), and they soon marry. A few years later, with a child on the way, joins the band of some friends as a vocalist. Initially called Warsaw, they soon called themselves Joy Division.
Anton Corbijn is probably the person most qualified to direct this film. He knew Joy Division, and in fact claimed that he moved from his native Netherlands to England under the inspiration of their music. He also photographed them, and made the video for the 1988 reissue of their song “Atmosphere”. With thirty years in demand as a stills photographer and director of promo videos behind him, it’s not surprising that Control shows a visual flair that belies this being a first feature. The use of black and white Scope (albeit shot on colour stock), a rare format at the best of times, is inspired. As Corbijn has pointed out: Joy Division were very much a monochrome band, from their sleeve designs to their photographs. Also, England in the 70s was a grey country, and Corbijn’s characteristic style in his stills work is black and white too. With the help of DP Martin Ruhe, Corbijn shows how beautiful black and white can be. As the film was shot in Super 35, Corbijn and Ruhe are able to compose across the whole width of the frame without making a (presumably contractually required) 4:3 version incomprehensible.
This visual flair would be nothing without a firm foundation, and Control has one in Martin Greenhalgh’s script. Working from Deborah Curtis’s book Touching from a Distance, his screenplay covers most of the bases of Ian’s story. From disaffected teenage to early marriage and fatherhood and work in the local job centre, via the discovery of his own epilepsy (when a job centre client has a fit in front of him, but this is prefigured by Ian’s apparent petit mal in a school chemistry lesson), to Joy Division, fame, his affair with Belgian Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara) to his suicide just before an American tour. Greenhalgh offsets the tragic arc of this story with a fair amount of often profanity-laced humour, much of it coming from Toby Kebbell as the band’s manager Rob Gretton. Greenhalgh’s screenplay is admirably balanced: Ian is sympathetically drawn, but the film doesn’t excuse that he lies and cheats on his wife. Annik Honoré isn’t demonised either (Greenhalgh tracked her down and interviewed her). But Samantha Morton, who has top billing over Sam Riley, is in many ways the emotional centre of the film. Her performance is remarkable, changing her voice and body language to portray Debbie at various ages, from a shy teenager to a woman who still loves her husband, while despairing of him. Much of the time she speaks so quietly, that when in a couple of scenes she explodes, it’s electrifying. The film does tend to peter out a little in its last half hour, but for the most part it’s compelling and very enjoyable even considering its downbeat theme.
Before he made Control, Sam Riley had made one previous film, 24 Hour Party People. That film was very different in tone and style to Control but it overlapped it considerably in subject matter. There, Riley played The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, which is referenced in an in-joke here. Riley resembles Curtis, though doesn’t quite sing like him, but he inhabits the role and commands the screen. He won Best Actor at the Edinburgh Festival, an award that was well deserved. As for the actors playing the rest of Joy Division – bassist Peter Hook (Joe Anderson), guitarist Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson) and drummer Stephen Morris (Harry Treadaway) – they give solid performances in essentially subsidiary roles. They also play the various songs live, and they are very convincing doing so. The performance scenes, shot with handheld cameras, have considerable energy. Ian’s real-life daughter Natalie appears as an extra in one of them, made up as a punk, ninety minutes in. Blink and you’ll miss a very brief appearance from Corbijn, disappearing behind a house at ninety-six minutes.
There’s a lot of interest in the Manchester scene of the late 1970s and Joy Division in particular – not only 24 Hour Party People and this film, but the recent documentary Joy Division as well. So there clearly was a built-in audience for Control. But even if you have no interest in Joy Division or New Order (which they morphed into after Curtis’s death), there’s lots of reasons to watch this film: the performances, and the sheer bleak but gorgeous look of it. Control is proof, if any were needed, that good films are made in Britain, even if it takes a Dutchman to do it.
Control is released as part of Weinstein Entertainment’s “Miriam Collection” and has the number 3 on its spine. The disc begins with trailers for other releases - Joy Division, I’m Not There, Berlin, Pete Seeger: The Power of Song - but these can be skipped. The disc is encoded for Region 1 only.
The DVD is transferred in the original ratio of 2.40:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The film was shot on colour stock as black and white was too grainy for Corbijn’s taste, and the transfer reproduces the film’s distinctive look very well. Blacks, whites and greys are solid and contrast is spot-on.
The soundtrack is available in Dolby Digital 5.1, both in the original English and a French dub. (The Region 2 release from Momentum, reviewed by John White here, leaves out the French version but includes Dolby 2.0 and DTS 5.1 variants.) Much of the film is front and centre, with the surrounds given over to music and ambience. The sound mix really comes into its own, and becomes noticeably louder, during the concert sequences, the subwoofer really adding to the bottom end. But even in the quieter scenes, dialogue is very well reproduced.
The extras are much the same as on the Region 2 release. Corbijn provides a commentary, which is factual and informative throughout. Naturally he speaks with a Dutch accent but most people should have little difficulty understanding him.
Also on the disc is a making-of featurette (23:18), which is useful to contain input from screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh. There’s also some behind-the-scenes video footage, which looks strange for being in colour. Inevitably, information is repeated from the commentary, especially when Corbijn speaks. That applies to an interview with Corbijn (12:53) which also appears on the disc.
As with the Region 2 disc you can watch extended versions of some of the live performances in the film: “Transmission” (3:59), “Leaders of Men” (2:51) and “Candidate” (2:22). There is also a Play All option. Next up, your chance to see the real Joy Division. This comes from the BBC’s “Something Else” (3:32) in September 1979, and they play “Transmission”, topped and tailed by a TV version of John Cooper Clarke’s “Evidently Chicken Town” with “bloody” replacing “fucking”. (You can hear extracts from the full-strength version, with a seemingly unchanged Clarke, in Control itself.) The source material is 70s video and tending towards the washed-out, but it’s worth seeing for what it is, and as a testament as to how accurately the four actors have reproduced the original band. Also available is Corbijn’s 1988 video for “Atmosphere” (4:34) and a video for the version of “Shadowplay” (4:15) by the Killers, a track which plays over the film’s end credits.
The DVD is completed by a quite extensive stills gallery (all in black and white, naturally). “Promotional Materials” leads you to a second menu. Here you can watch the trailer (3:07) and single pages advertising the soundtrack CD, Anton Corbijn’s book In Control – A Diary, Deborah Curtis’s Touching from a Distance, Joy Division’s remastered LPs on CD and vinyl, and a page of text describing the work of The Epilepsy Foundation.
Control was one of the best films of 2007 and Weinstein’s DVD presents it very well. I don’t have the Region 2 to hand, but from John’s review there’s little to choose between them: the Region 2 has a DTS track but the Region 1 has a few more extras, including some live footage of the real Joy Division. Otherwise, it comes down to the usual factors: PAL-NTSC issues, region coding and price.