Back in 1973, Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) was still at school and obsessed with David Bowie, spending a lot of time listening to his records in his bedroom and reading. After a while he fell in love with Deborah (Samantha Morton), the girlfriend of his mate, and they became a couple, but while there were good times ahead for them, it was not always going to be that way. The first hints of Ian's epilepsy began when he was a teenager, where he was simply dismissed as a dreamer, but once he left school and got a job working for the employment service, he was an unlikely candidate for pop or rock stardom...
The trouble with Control, the biography of Curtis, was that everyone knew how it would end, everyone interested in seeing it anyway, and the final suicide hung over the story like a gathering stormcloud. Perhaps for this reason director Anton Corbijn, the celebrated photographer who had collaborated with his subject and indeed the band Joy Division, kept Ian at arm's length for practically the whole movie, which could have the effect for the unconverted of making them wonder what the big deal about this guy was in the first place. If it wasn't for some excellent recreations of the music, Curtis would seem very ordinary.
But in way that appears to have been Corbijn's point, that the singer was not a typical rock and roll animal, he was unremarkable as far as his personailty went and it was only the depths of his artistic talent, solely brought forth in his music, that had him standing out from the crowd. Otherwise it's a tale that could have happened, and did happen, to any number of young blokes of the era: left school for a job he didn't much enjoy, got married too young, liked to hang around with his friends, had a baby, all the prosaic, everyday stuff that was the life story of millions of his countrymen. This comes across to the extent that it begins to eclipse the man's actual, musical achievements.
Riley gets a few chances to be soulful, depicting the artist struggling with his muse and all the things that you've come to expect from a rock biopic, but most of the time he comes across as dulled by his grey life, a feeling enhanced by the film's crisp but unglamorous black and white photography. He has the need to break out of this straitjacket that he has put himself in with his stifling marriage that he is frustrated about, not that he doesn't love his wife (played with touching modesty by Morton). It's just that she represents shackles of the existence he doesn't feel comfortable with, so that when the band begins to take off he starts an affair with Belgian writer Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara) as if to reject his Macclesfield roots for something more exotic in comparison.
Around Riley there are fine performances who bring out some much needed humour, and the tone could have been earthier in that respect with Corbijn so distant he not so much examines his characters under a microscope, but through a telescope. Toby Kebbell stood out as the manager Rob Gretton, a superb performance of ambition and wit, with the screen bursting into life whenever he appears in contrast to the drudgery that the rest of the narrative plods through. The actors played the songs themselves and do a remarkably good job of recreating a sound that seems to unique to the original band, which is essential because we really need to hear how distinctive and powerful they were. Corbijn is reluctant to show any other musicians, so when they go to the legendary Sex Pistols gig we never see that band, although oddly John Cooper Clarke is shown playing himself, looking very old. But all this is a lead up to the final tragedy, and if the emotions have been deceptively muted up to that point then the ending is appropriately wrenching. It's a curious rock biopic that stresses the mundane over the glitz, but Control seems the right way to have handled it.