What About It?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")
Control is the first film for well known rock and roll photographer/album cover designer/video director Anton Corbijn. His background really comes through in Control in that it's a starkly beautiful film. You could stop it at nearly any point and admire it as a still. While this can be seen as a "Joy Division" movie, and it is, it is more the story of Ian Curtis, their singer, who tragically hung himself at 23 years old, just before Joy Division would have come to the USA and "arrived" Corbijn clearly has a passion for Joy Division, but has little interest in glorifying Curtis. The film is based on Debbie Curtis' (Ian's wife) book, which certainly reveals some personal information. Whether it sticks to the facts entirely is not a concern of mine, as much as, does it feel like it did? I think it does. Sticking too closely to facts would, I think, produce a very dull movie, as real life is full of undramatic moments. We are watching a tragedy and we already know how it ends, thus the drama and the examination are more important. It isn't where we go, but we see on the way that is compelling. To that end, Corbijn makes some interesting cut choices, sowing a pivotal moment, immediately followed by where it led, as if we are trusted to fill in the gaps. This gives the two hour plus movie a fresh sense of pacing and the feeling of moving quickly. Since Ian died at 23, we have a very narrow window from his school days to his Joy Division days. But certainly there's a lot of life explored through it.
Corbijn's choice of B & W gives the film an instant period feeling, as well as an atmosphere of starkness, which I think suits it very well. When his soon to be mistress, Annik asks him how he feels about his hometown, Ian quickly describes it as "grey." His general coldness when faced with emotional conflict also fits the color. Authenticity is clearly important to Corbijn and the actors themselves perform the Joy Division songs played live in the film (and terrifically too) Sam Riley succeeds in becoming the character, down to his well known dance moves. His performance here is simply amazing, and the most subtle gestures seem natural to him, whether backing away from his questioning wife or attacking the audience with his lyrics. He doesn't hit a false note. Casting was obviously done very carefully, as everyone seems to fit their part. Joe Anderson is entertaining as Hooky, the straight edged cynical realist willing to compare love for his girlfriend with love for his car. James Anthony Pearson rounds out the band with his overeager sweet natured enthusiasm. These guys feel like a real band. Toby Kebbell's Rob Gretton is a large source of entertainment here, his larger than life enthusiasm and surly nature, combined with the fact that he does fulfill the things he promised, give the atmosphere an energy of possibility. In fact it is this possibility which torments Ian, as he knows their fame is only increasing, as his control decreases.
Of course the women in Ian's life are as important as his band mates, and the two of them represent a remarkable contrast. Samantha Morton's Debbie is a beautiful and passionate girl with simple wants. She is happy to do the housework or take a job herself out of love for Ian and their life. She wants simple things such as loyalty and affection, the conventional life, child included. Ian meets and falls for her before he has become successful, and it's he who accelerates their relationship, proposing marriage unbelievably quickly. Debbie loves the Ian who is not successful yet, but needs to write poems in his room while emulating David Bowie. She doesn't even like David Bowie, but responds to Ian's drive and yearning to be more than he is. Debbie is "the girl next door." but to Ian comes to represent everything he used to be, whereas Alexandria Maria Lara's Annik is more representative of who he wishes he was. She's the exotic beauty, a world traveller and independent woman. He only knows her as a very direct result of his growing fame. She is in short, everything that Debbie is not, the future, not the past. Yet, Ian can't bear to part with Debbie or Annik, needing both his reality and his fantasy.
His epilepsy is a big factor in his life, complicating life on the road and helping to cast a shadow on his concept of the future. The film doesn't really lay blame in one direction, but his condition and his "treatment" certainly didn't help. Told by doctor's that the excessive combination of drugs he was to take were largely determined by trial and error can't inspire much confidence, and could very easily contribute to his unhealthy mental state. He witnesses a girl have a seizure and later learns she died from it, this would hardly give him hope for his own longevity, and the experience appeared to affect him profoundly. Ian has always felt "out of place"and the epilepsy seems to confirm this to him.
Ian is not portrayed as a devil may care, ladies man rock star. He remains the kid in his room who laid on his bed wishing to be David Bowie as an escape from his small town. He spends countless hours in the mirror imagining how he'll look when singing. Yet, as the saying goes, "be careful what you wish for." Ian is in such a rush to be admired that he grabs every chance to be an adult, including his marriage to Debbie. He cultivates a coldness, which never comes through as "hard." The Ian Curtis presented here is extraordinarily vulnerable, unable to dismiss nearly any feeling he encounters. For all of his effort at creating a "punk rock" type facade (ie. HATE written on his jacket) he is wounded by everything, very often his own actions. When he asks Debbie not to divorce him and she tells him he loves Annik, he seems genuinely confused when he asks "What does that have to do with us?" as if the world of beauty existing untarnished that he'd searched for in music and poetry was possible despite his conflicting relationships. He can't understand why he can't have them both. To him, they are "Beauty" as much as they are women. In the real world however, an object of beauty has her own concerns and her own life to live.
Curtis was a despairing seeker of beauty and truth. He was also very young and flawed and "helped" by a system with little understanding of his epilepsy, and not anywhere near ready to handle any undiagnosed mental illness, particularly for one living such an exaggerated reality. Ian's trouble accepting life, and perhaps natural melancholy were only enhanced by having a "bigger" life. He began to view his stage performances not as a joy but a drain, constantly expending energy which he never replenished. He is an artist, but his art consumes him and his life around it. There was also the emotional strain of his two romances against each other. Could other drugs have helped him, or therapy? Would they have killed the creativity, which he seemed to live for? Suicide always leaves a lot of "why's" which we can never truly answer. All we know is what happened. It's to Corbijn's credit that he doesn't attempt to tidy up, or give a happy ending, leaving the story to speak for itself, ending with the music, which does endure. The hurt and blame is sadly left with his loved ones and those who loved him.
Certainly he and Joy Division produced some lasting work and this produces bigger questions. Would that important work have been produced if Ian Curtis had not been so conflicted, and more well adjusted? And, I wonder if anyone could've helped him. He had a drive for success, but only in reaching it could he find he couldn't handle it. We still see versions of Ian's story today. rock and roll suicide is far from unheard of whether from hanging or a drug overdose. Certainly the fame machine is much larger now but certainly Curtis and figures like Kurt Cobain had some difficulties in common. Is it the torture that produces the art? Curtis may well be immortal now, through his songs, which have helped countless people by now, just by offering a voice they could relate to. Would he have been able to cope with a life where his dreams were never realized? Who can say? I can't help wishing that someone could've helped Ian Curtis, the vulnerable young man, hiding out in his room, wishing so hard to be Bowie. In the end, we have no hero, and a true tragedy, but as fits the poems Ian loved, the tragedy is nonetheless full of beautiful moments, that always had to end. Pain has been known to produce beautiful work, but it doesn't come cheaply. It can't hurt to remember that he was just as human as any of us, a guy in over his head, fighting a struggle that proved too big for him. While he ultimately lost, he did get moments out of it that would make anyone proud. Any happy ending can be reversed if you could make the movie go on longer, but we can content ourselves with the fact that there are some moments which last. Control is finally, a remembrance of a life and everything that was in it.
Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) sits in a room pondering "Existence. Well, what does it matter? I exist on the best terms I can. The past is now part of my future. The present is well out of hand."
We flash back to Macclesfield, England, 1973 and find Ian walking home, ignoring everyone he passes, including some kids who ask him to throw them a ball they'd sent near him and his father who says hello when he walks in. He heads straight for his room where he smokes and listens to David Bowie. He practices putting on eyeliner in the mirror when his friend Nick (Matthew McNulty) arrives bringing along his girlfriend Debbie(Samantha Morton) Ian offers her a cigarette, telling her she can't be in his gang if she doesn't smoke. She says she doesn't want to be in it anyway and he responds "Me neither." Debbie wants to leave, but getting her jacket she notices some of Ian's papers and asks "WHo's the writer?" Ian asks "Who do you think?"
We next find Ian in school, scribbling while the teacher writes on the chalkboard. He and Nick visit an elderly woman and Ian uses her bathroom while she's telling a story, taking medication from her medicine cabinet while he's there. After leaving her, Ian shows Nick the pills and reads "Cirazipan, usually prescribed for schizophrenia. Side effects include drowsiness, apathy, agitation, and blurred vision. I'm taking two." They then pay Debbie a visit while they're obviously stoned. Although Debbie's mother seems appalled, Debbie shows up to ask them in. Ian fascinates Nick and Debbie by spontaneously reciting Wordsworth. Ian and Debbie are clearly already attracted to each other, and start holding hands right behind Nick's back while he ponders the poem.
Ian spends more time in his room listening to David Bowie. He watches himself in the mirror, trying to come up with dance moves and singing with a stage persona. We then find Ian and Debbie going to a Bowie concert. The two are soon inseparable and Ian very quickly proposes to Debbie, telling her "You're mine. Irretrievably." They quickly make it official and we find Debbie busy with housework while Ian closes himself up in a room and writes.
Ian visits a bar one night to see the Sex Pistols and runs into some guys he knows in a band, Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson,) and Peter Hook or Hooky (Joe Anderson,) and Steve Morris (Harry Treadaway) "How's the band?" Ian asks. Bernard says "Not bad" but Hooky adds "Not particularly good either, is it?" causing Bernard to amend to "No. We're pretty shite." Hooky adds "Be a lot less shite if we found a singer that could sing." We then see Debbie come up to Ian, causing him to tell them "gotta go." After the show Ian asks them if they're really looking for a singer. We find Ian next walking to work in a jacket with "HATE" lettered on the back. He now works for the Department of Employment, trying to place the unemployed in work assignments.
The band, going by the name "Warsaw" shows up for a live gig giving us a look at them in action. We then see them making a record. Debbie is hesitant about the money it costs, but Ian assures her the band will pay them back, and then suggests they have a baby which eliminates her reservations. Ian tells the studio man that the band's name was Warsaw but is now Joy Division, which he explains was the name of a brothel German soldiers used during World War II. Bernard designs a cover for the record.
Ian returns to work at the employment office and while placing a girl, witnesses her falling to the ground having a seizure. The band and Debbie watch are watching Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson,) an influential TV personality playing the Buzzcocks, who have played the same venues. Wilson holds up the Joy Division album "An Ideal for Living" at the end of the show, promising that people will soon hear of them. They discuss the fact that the album was mentioned on TV, but Ian says "Forget the record, he's gotta put us on."
The band notices Tony coming into a bar Ian decides to approach him. He greets Tony, saying "You're a twat, you are. You're a bastard." Tony asks why and Ian tells him "Because you haven't put us on television." Tony smiles at this and says "You'll be the next band I put on, darling." We see the note he handed Tony which reads "Joy Division, you cunt."
Joy Division starts playing shows. A band manager, Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell) approaches them impressed by their show and audience reaction. They tell him they already have a manager, Terry Mason (Andrew Sheridan) but Gretton ridicules Terry for not knowing the business and leaves his number with the band. They soon give Rob a call and he accompanies them to Tony Wilson''s TV show. Tony tells Rob that the band should sign with Factory because they're a "fresh and exciting label for their fresh and exciting band." and that they're both from Manchester. Tony offers them a deal to split profits and allow the band to keep the publishing rights, which catches their interest. He also offers to sign the contract in his own blood if it makes them happy. Before they go on air, Tony cautions them that it's a live show, so "no swearing, or they'll cut you off." This prompts examination and Tony patiently assures them that "arse" is a swear, as is "big dog's cock." We see Ian's family and Debbie watching the band play "Transmission" on TV. Ian starts his trademark dance moves enthusiastically on the show.
We see the band meeting after the show with a contract that Tony has signed in his own blood. At home Debbie has to pull Ian away from the TV to get him to come to bed. Ian also has to continue work at the employment office, where Rob and the band come to get him to head out for a gig in London. They're disappointed with the turnout and it proves to be a long ride home as the heat in the car is out. This distresses Ian who asks Bernard, who has a cold, to lend him his sleeping bag for a few minutes. They start struggling over it when Ian starts having an epileptic seizure. They pull the car over to check on him and then bring him to the hospital. The doctor gives Ian a long list of drugs to try while on the waiting list to see a neurology specialist. He also tells Ian he needs to get early nights and avoid alcohol. He adds that finding the right combination of drugs is largely trial and error and when Ian asks, he lists many possible side effects.
Ian falls asleep at work and his supervisor wakes him. Ian blames his pills but his boss wonders about the "late night concerts" telling him he's not sure he can do both jobs at once and asks him to think about it. Ian makes a call to check on the girl who had a seizure in front of him and learns that she died which greatly surprises him. At home we see Debbie knocking on the door to Ian's room asking him to come to bed, although he doesn't seem to respond and instead starts writing "She's Lost Control" which we see then see the band recording and playing live. We see Debbie showing up a gig, quite clearly pregnant and angry that she wasn't on the guest list. Tony expresses surprise that she's pregnant and looks concerned. Debbie goes backstage looking for Ian although the band isn't very helpful. She finds him sitting with a girl, who he explains is "a mate of Hooky's" She introduces herself as "Ian's wife." and he then asks her if she should be out "in her condition."
Ian and Debbie are soon at the hospital to have their baby, a girl. Debbie soon has to get a job,although Ian assures her that he'll take care of her when the new album comes out. We see Joy Division playing and in the crowd we focus on a woman, Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara) who after the show is chatting with Rob and watching Ian on the phone with Debbie, who seems to need more money, although Ian tells her his share is the same as everyone else's. Ian notices Annik and asks Rob about her. He tells Ian she wants to do an interview but offers to put her off as it's "only a crappy fanzine" Ian, however, seems perfectly willing to do an interview and suggests they do it that night back at the hotel. She talks with the entire band and asks if Joy Division's music is beautiful. Ian says "Some of it yeah, but some of it's not meant to be beautiful. Ian ends up staying up with Annik after everyone else falls asleep. She reveals she's only a journalist as a hobby and then asks him about Macclesfield where he grew up.
Ian: It's grey. It's miserable. I've wanted to escape it my whole life.
Annik: What about your wife?
Ian: She loves it in Macclesfield.
Annik: You were married so young. I've never heard of people being married so young.
Ian: Yeah, I know. My marriage was a mistake.
They fall asleep together on the couch.
Ian returns home and finds laundry hanging in the kitchen. He has sex with Debbie that night and starts crying and Debbie reassures him although he doesn't want to be touched. The band picks him up the next day passing Debbie pushing the baby carriage as they leave. We then see Annik waiting to be picked up and Ian kisses her when he sees her. Debbie sits at home with Natalie, watching the phone. We flash to the band dropping Ian off, with Debbie waiting at the door to embrace him, which he doesn't return. She says "I must have been out when you called. Ian explains "It was hard to get to a phone." She asks about the pills working and he tells her he had an attack in Berlin. She maintains a warm tone but he acts completely disinterested. Attending a party together, Debbie explains to a friend that she trusts him with other women because he's so protective and possessive of her. However when they walk home, Ian tells her that it's OK with him if she sleeps with other men. She says "When you say a thing like that, it makes me think you don't love me anymore." Ian replies, "I don't think I do."
Debbie starts looking though all of his things for a sign of another woman, finding Annik's name written on an album. While Joy Division is touring, she call the Belgian embassy where Annik works. We hear Annik answer the phone. Rob comes to see the band while they're practicing and tells them he's book a two week tour in the USA. Ian gets home and finds Debbie sitting in the house with no lights on. She asks "Who's Annik?" He doesn't answer but she keeps pushing for details. She declares that "No one loves you like me." although he still refuses to say a word. She steps outside and he starts sobbing while she does the same outside. When she comes back inside, he tells her that he's sorry and says "I love you." Debbie asks "What does that mean?" and he says he's finished with Annik.
On the way to the recording studio, we see Annik waiting. She watches them record. He makes a call to Debbie later and says "I told her." just before he goes to see Annik. Joy Division plays another show and we see Ian's frantic dancing turn into another "fit" and he collapses on stage. They end the show and the crowd still applauds wildly. They tell Ian "you've had worse." Rob asks about his medication. Annik comes to check on him, comforting him until Debbie calls and he takes it. He and Annik spend some time alone together, Ian declaring how happy he is to be there.
Ian goes home and Debbie greets him, but is surprised that he leaves again as she turns around to get him a cup of tea. He goes to a local bar and comes home drunk later, telling Debbie, who's in bed, that he doesn't want to hurt her. She tells him to come to bed, but he says "I've taken my pills." and drops to the floor. She calls an ambulance and while they pump his stomach, Debbie finds a note which says "No need to fight now. Give my love to Annik." He gets discharged from the hospital and back to work with the band. He thinks to himself that he wants to be done with the band and never expected it to be so big. He says "When I'm up there singing, they don't understand how much I give, and how it affects me. And now they want more....And now we're going to America. I've no control anymore." At their next show, Ian says he needs a few minutes at show time. Rob asks another singer to fill in to give him time although the audience is not at all pleased. He collects himself before the first song is over only to leave the stage before he can finish the song. The audience gets angry at this. Tony talks with Ian about how complicated everything is. Tony assures him the show will go down in history and that everybody doesn't hate him.
Rob gets a call that they're going to be sued over damages from the riot at the show. He then gets Ian at his door buzzer, who has Annik with him and says he needs a place to stay. Debbie calls Rob just as he lets them in, saying she doesn't have any idea where he is. He breaks down and tells Debbie that Ian is there and has Annik with him. He tells Ian "She wants a divorce." Ian starts staying with Bernard next. Bernard has an idea to try and help Ian with hypnosis. He starts remembering bits of conversation and poetry. He calls Annik and tells her "It all feels wrong." He writes her a letter about his confusion between what he knows is right and what he's supposed to know is right. He also reveals fear that his condition will get worse and says that he loves her.
He returns to his childhood home and his old room. He calls Bernard and tells him he won't be going out that night because he needs to speak to Debbie. He tells him he'll meet him at the airport on Monday. He returns to he and Debbie's house and starts drinking and watching television, falling asleep in the process. Debbie gets home and is surprised to find Ian there. He asks her not to divorce him. She explains that she doesn't want to but he loves someone else. He asks "What's that got to do with us?" and she says "Everything." He screams at her to leave saying "Don't come back until the morning. I'll be gone by then." She leaves as he asks. He sits listening to records and writes. He has a seizure and falls to the floor. In the morning he gets up holding his head and finds a rope hanging in the kitchen from a pulley. We hear the sound of a sharp drop and Debbie arrives home with Natalie waiting in the car. Entering the house, she screams realizing that Ian has hung himself. Joy Division's song Atmosphere starts playing and we see his band mates reacting to the news and Annik hearing from Tony. Debbie screams for help in the street with Natalie in her arms.and we see smoke rising from a crematorium, while words on the screen say "Ian Curtis died May 18th, 1980. He was 23 years old."