Unknown pleasures

There's a surprising amount of humour in this take on the Joy Division story

<strong>Control (15)

With its emphasis on immediacy, pop is a disposable medium, prone to the caprices of adolescents who turn, Judas-like, against records they once prized more than their own limbs. In the pre-download 1980s, I travelled hours from my home, in a village so dull that our only graffiti was a big "Level 42" spray-painted on the main road, to get my mitts on a Das Psych-Oh! Rangers 12-inch that means zilch to me now. But if pop is throwaway, film is for ever. And although something is ratified when cinema turns its attention to pop music, something dies also. Forced to account for itself on the big screen, and to conform to such conventions as narrative and motivation, pop can look petrified, like a butterfly under glass.

Control, a film about the Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, who committed suicide in May 1980 at the age of 23, largely avoids these pitfalls. The picture is directed by Anton Corbijn, the photographer whose portraits of the band contributed to their austere, Mancunian-Teutonic iconography. He has shot the film in metallic black and white, the better to emphasise his cast's sunken cheeks and the grim Macclesfield landscape through which Curtis (Sam Riley) trudges in a donkey jacket with "HATE" emblazoned on the back.

The widescreen cinematography floods your field of vision so there's no escaping it, which is the visual equivalent of what the band's music sounds like. Their albums conjure up the sorts of images that Corbijn stages here - bare bulbs, stone rooms, crematorium chimneys, as opposed to conga lines high-kicking across Technicolor vistas. (You'll have to wait until The Throbbing Gristle Story for that.)

Yet Control doesn't leave the band's sombre mythology entirely unchecked. Corbijn and his screenwriter, Matt Greenhalgh (adapting the book Touching From a Distance by Curtis's widow, Deborah), recognise that this story has elements of the gloomy but drily funny kitchen-sink films of the 1950s and 1960s, and have fashioned their picture accordingly. That means you get something you wouldn't expect - laughter amid the darkness. Most of the humour comes courtesy of Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell), who delivers a monologue, littered with a c-word that isn't "control", outlining why he should manage the band. By this time, Curtis is already married to Debbie (Samantha Morton) and chafing against domesticity. Add to this his epilepsy and depression, the pressures of Joy Division's success, and an affair with the journalist Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara), and you can see why he was never going to be Manchester's answer to Sacha Distel.

Curtis's story has already featured in 24-Hour Party People, where it was merely a prelude to the rise of Factory Records. To anyone who saw that potted history and deduced that Curtis hanged himself because he was a bit tense about the band's impending US tour, Control will feel revelatory. The film takes its time cataloguing the singer's indecisive shuttling between Debbie and Annik, but then I can't imagine how the intensity of his brief life could be conveyed other than with this degree of scrutiny, or with performances as heartfelt as those of Morton and Riley (who also does his own singing). Lara fares less well in the sketchier role of Annik but, in her favour, she delivers the immortal line "Tell me about Macclesfield" in a Belgian drawl without wincing.

A few of Corbijn's touches, such as the illuminated Sex Pistols marquee that fizzles out the moment Joy Division is formed, are straight from The Beginner's Guide to Biopics. And the use of "Love Will Tear Us Apart" just as Curtis tells Debbie he doesn't love her is misleading - although, to be fair, he never wrote a song called "Depression, and My Affair With a Sultry Belgian, Will Tear Us Apart". But then which director could have done any better incorporating that indie national anthem, that albatross of a song?

What matters is that Control is faithful to the reality beneath the pop folklore while honouring the broader image of Joy Division that exists in the collective consciousness. Unless you count the scene in which the band members fart in the dressing room before their nerve-racking live debut - for which we must be grateful that Corbijn didn't see fit to cut in "Something Must Break", that classic Joy Division number about the dangers of flatulence.

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Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Election fever