dir: Anton Corbijn
[img_assist|nid=118|title=Unknown pleasures from a distant star|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=640|height=480]
It’s… hard for me to review something like this. Perversely, I have adored Joy Division’s music since I was a child, but I never much bought into any of the mythologising of Ian Curtis as a tortured genius who died far too much before his time by his own hand. I say ‘perversely’ because despite having listened to both Closer and Unknown Pleasures more times than you’ve masturbated, I never really had a burning desire to find out more about the events leading up to Curtis’s suicide.
Also, fairly recently, the Michael Winterbottom film 24 Hour Party People seemed to deal with the Joy Division and Curtis story with the care and attention it deserved, devoting half (the good half) of the flick to their tale. Sure, it might have had the depth of a puddle of spilt beer, but I wasn’t really hungry for more.
Control has managed to make a fool out of me, making me doubt the flick’s and maker’s intentions at first, and the validity of the central performance, before it absolutely and utterly drew me in before blowing me away.
It took half an hour of this two hour film before I could accept Sam Riley as Ian. It is, not discounting the scenes where the band is performing, a subtle performance which requires great skill in not rendering a character into a caricature. Reilly manages that in a grimly uncomfortable fashion.
At first I felt the film was trading in affectations and clichés that damn most stories about artists into the pathetic narratives they usually end up following and being. Eventually it won me over, but it was worth the wait.
It depicts Curtis as a genuinely tormented individual, tormented by the circumstances of his life as well as his epilepsy. But mostly he’s depicted as someone who never intended to become the figure he became.
It’s something of a difference from the narratives where someone rises from obscurity to fame and riches only to be destroyed by fame, drugs and their own hubris. Curtis died before ever achieving anything apart from modest success, and certainly wasn’t destroyed by wealth or fame.
He was, however, unready for a life as a lead singer, and unwilling to become a public figure. Performance never interested him, and the burdens of public scrutiny are of far less danger than the expectations of crowds who he sees as draining his very life.
His seizures take a greater toll as time rolls on, and really, we’re mostly looking at the events of a single year here. The man died at 23, so it’s not really a saga. More of an intricately elaborated upon snapshot of a person who was never going to survive in this world.
The biggest problem in his life, as depicted here, is his inability to reconcile himself to his early marriage to Debbie (Samantha Morton), a girl he cuts his best friend’s lunch to get. He sees it as the fundamental mistake of his life, from which little else could go right. The scenes where he looks at his life, wife and child with queasy discomfort are disturbing, painful but true. They’re true in the sense that his utter inability to appreciate the home and hearth in another man would usually result in a man going out for some cigarettes and never coming back, as the euphemism goes. But for someone like Ian, suffering as he seems to do from a crippling level of depression, who still strangely loves his wife despite his carryings-on with another woman, Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara), he doesn’t really see any options.
The music plays such a fundamental part of the film, to such a point that the recreations of gigs or clips are uncanny in their verisimilitude. But as great as those scenes are, the ones that resonate the most and torment the viewer the most are the quite ones of Ian struggling with the ugliness inside, sitting alone or viewing his family with stark horror.
The evocative black and white cinematography captures the sense of the grimness of his existence, but it manages to be beautiful in its own right. It makes sense, since director Anton Corbijn is famous more as a photographer than a director.
I know that everything I’ve written so far makes this sound like an excruciating and pretentious exercise in futility, even for an obsessive fan of the band. Curtis himself doesn’t look like he’s cracked a smile or laughed in his life, but the other characters in the film counterbalance his dourness with their humour. The other members of Joy Division, including the anal retentive Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson) and especially Hookie (Joe Anderson) and their manager seem like beacons of light in what would otherwise drown us in Curtis’s overwhelming darkness.
Tony Wilson gets a look in again, this time in a similarly flamboyant portrayal, but in a far less self-important role compared to Steve Coogan’s over the top work in 24 Hour Party People. Craig Parkinson manages to resurrect the lunatic in a far more subtle but no less interesting portrayal, doubly sad due to Wilson’s recent death.
Samantha Morton has a thankless role as the nagging wife, which is a surprise to me since the book is mostly based on Debbie Curtis bio/autobio Touching from a Distance, which I thought would have made her look more sympathetic. But it doesn’t, so we can only hope that makes it more credible.
What Sam Riley does here is simultaneously compelling and sickening to watch, and I mean in that a positive sense. If you know his fate, then much of it is a slog to the inevitable shuffle towards the gallows, but it is no less powerful because of that. He manages to give you an inkling of why such a course of action was inevitable, and, dare I say it, probably the only path open to him.
It’s an awful thing to say about someone so young and so talented, but he could have ended up doing something even worse, as some people do who can’t decide between whether they should live, or whether their families should live, or neither.
After all, doesn’t it demystify some of the ‘glamour’ of rock star self-destruction and the romanticism of dying young when the protagonist is represented as committing suicide because he fears how much worse his epilepsy is going to get, and because he can’t let go of his wife or of the other woman he loves?
It’s hard, unless you’re of a certain bent, to ‘enjoy’ the depiction of such a character generally, because generally depressive, suicidal characters are as irritating in film as they are in real life. Control goes a long way towards engendering sympathy in the audience without sugar-coating the essence of what made him who he was, or without praising him to the high heavens as a tragic genius either.
Was Curtis a genius? I couldn’t possibly comment. Their music has so often been the soundtrack playing in my head since my teenage years that there’s no way I can be objective about his place in the musical firmament. Everyone has heard Love Will Tear Us Apart so many times that it’s as irritating as any of the worst advertising jingles you can think of. But so many of their discordant, majestic songs blaze a path through the veins and nerves of even the hardest and most cynical, that discounting them or their influence on music of the last thirty years or so seems foolish.
Control honours the man, and honours the music, and does so without wedging his sorry tale into the generic muso biopic formula. But that doesn’t mean it is an upbeat or pleasant way to spend two hours. It is harrowing and disturbing, and uncomfortable, but no less compelling because of it.
This is a great film for fans, and is an excellent double bill with the recent Joy Division documentary directed by Grant Gee. For anyone else, including people who’ve never heard of Joy Division, or can’t stand them, or who haven’t heard of any new music since Perry Como put out his last album, this film would be the most horrible way imaginable to spend two tortuous hours. Avoid or embrace, as is your wont.
8 versions of Dead Souls which are never nearly as good as the original out of 10
“It's like it's not happening to me but someone pretending to be me. Someone dressed in my skin" – Control.