I finally got around to seeing “Control” last night, and I very, very much wanted to feel enthusiastic about it after leaving the theatre — but I was left unmoved. I bet some of my friends were just waiting for my argumentative nature to kick in so that I could trash the film, but I did genuinely want to like it. It just didn’t happen because — It’s kinda boring and thematically wishy-washy.
The greatest sin a film can commit is simply being mediocre — and “Control” in and of itself is not mediocre — but its intentions are. The acting throughout is great, the cast’s newly-recorded recreations of the original music is better than I’d imagined (still sounding like a well-versed cover band and not like the actual band, but it could’ve been a lot worse), and the cinematography, the best thing about the film, is breathtaking — but, as a friend of mine who quoted Curtis to me over the phone after having seen the film said: “Where will it end…where will it end?”
“Control” is not a film about Joy Division, but rather the tragic story about the marriage, illness and suicide of a British lad who happened to be in a band; Joy Division is merely the backdrop for the protagonist’s internal conflict — which is fine, but never once does director Anton Corbijn bother to explain exactly why the band, its music and its frontman were so important. Corbijn was the rock photographer in Britain responsible for some of the potent iconic imagery of the band back in the late 1970s, but here in the film, his visual style constantly mimicks that of his original photos, but he hardly ever goes into the band stuff at all — a truly strange choice.
Again, it’s perfectly acceptable to me for the filmmakers to favor the failed marriage end of the story over rock band minutiae, since the majority of the film’s potential audience won’t be made up of JD super-fans — but there is simply not enough of a balance between the two sides of the story. Peter Hartlaub, reviewing “Control” for the San Francisco Chronicle, writes:
“[The film] will fill you in on everything you might want to know about the difficult relationship between Debbie and Ian Curtis. ‘You love someone else,’ she tells him, during one of their many increasingly sad confrontations. ‘What’s that got to do with us?’ is his response. But there’s little illumination as to where Curtis’ genius came from and how it changed the world for millions of music fans.“
The film’s first 20 minutes are its strongest, showing a pre-Joy Division teenage Curtis dreaming about rock stardom, flirting with drug use and engaging in sweet romance — but as soon as the marital problems plot thread shows up, everything grinds to a screeching halt. In addition, Corbijn makes the case that Curtis killed himself only because he was in a marriage with a woman he didn’t love anymore, and because he was distressed over having to down so many meds. What about Curtis’s very obvious mental health problems, like mood swings and depression? What about what the rest of the band thought of his condition?
My thoughts on the film are best mirrored by reviewer Noel Murray, writing for The Onion, a surprisingly solid destination for film criticism:
“Early in Anton Corbijn’s stark black-and-white Joy Division biopic ‘Control’, frontman Ian Curtis (astonishingly well-portrayed by the angular, haunted Sam Riley) is shown walking down the streets of Manchester, sporting a overcoat with ‘HATE’ painted on the back, while the soundtrack rumbles with the opening passages of Joy Division’s ‘No Love Lost.’ At the end of the route, Curtis doffs his coat and sits down at an office desk, ready for another day of finding jobs for the disabled. In that one moment, Corbijn and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh precisely capture what forged Curtis: the bleakness of a rusting industrial city, the angry promise of punk, and the exhausting reality of domestic responsibility.
But the problem with ‘Control’ â€” along with nearly every other attempt so far to dramatize the Joy Division storyâ€”is that the details of Curtis’ life and death aren’t as interesting as they seem. Born and raised in Manchester, Curtis was an aspiring poet and civil servant who married young, was inspired by Sex Pistols to join a local band, had an amazing three-year run of music-making, developed a form of epilepsy, cheated on his wife, and then hung himself the night before Joy Division was scheduled to leave on a U.S. tour. Corbijn spends a lot of time on the epilepsy and the affair, and devotes almost the entire final hour of ‘Control’ to the two-week wallow leading up to Curtis’ suicide. What Corbijn doesn’t get is any kind of reasonable explanation for how such a normal-seeming guy and the three moderately talented lads he shared a stage with managed to write and perform songs as shattering as ‘Disorder,’ ‘She’s Lost Control,’ ‘Transmission,’ and ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.’ Something reached down and touched them. But what?
Corbijn and Greenhalgh can’t shoulder too much blame for not answering what may be an unanswerable question, but they do deserve to be rapped for wasting the kinetic rush of ‘Control’s’ first hour on a second half so turgid that it would verge on overkill even at half the length. Riley makes a perfect Curtis, and Corbijn’s finely shaded recreations of classic Joy Division performances are so exciting that the movie could’ve been nothing but fake concert footage, and it would’ve been every bit as moving as the filmmakers intended. Instead, ‘Control’ piles on argument after argument between Curtis and his wife (extra-dowdy Samantha Morton), and scene after scene of Curtis moping in the corner. The story of ‘Control’s’ creation is the story of great potential, squandered. Joy Division fans should be able to relate.“
So should you see “Control”? Sure. I guess. I’m not telling you not to — I’m saying that it’s no illumination on anything. It looks pretty, though. In the end, it’s great that the cinema can be lit up with the story of someone from the world of music that deserves to have their story told. Which begs the question: so when the fuck do we get a Fela movie?