Days before the press screening, if you asked anyone around the film festival what they were looking forward to seeing the most, the one-word answer that came back without a second’s hesitation was Control. Perhaps the advance word of mouth from its reception in Cannes last May and the brief clip shown during the press launch in July somehow grabbed everyone’s attention. There’s also probably enough Joy Division and New Order aficianados and general music lovers intrigued by a biopic of yet another tragic cult figure turned legend. I’m sure these are all factors but my feeling is that sometimes you just feel it in your bones that a great work of art has come into being.

No doubt there’s some quantum mechanics at work in the ether to explain this superstitious tapping into the collective appeal of something unseen. My faith, however, was justified and only 15 minutes into this instant classic I thought ‘this is a bloody masterpiece’. It’s a word that carries a lot of weight and difficult to fill expectations but if Control isn’t a masterpiece, then it’s only a few whiskers shy of it and how many films can you say that about?

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Control is about not having control and one has to assume there’s a good deal of truth mixed in with a capturing of the ‘essence’ of truth as it’s drawn from eyewitness accounts; not least director Anton Corbijn’s own involvement as photographer with the band and Curtis’ wife Debbie’s published memoirs. Curtis couldn't control who he loved or was loved by, nor the creative impulse that burdened his apparently gentle demeanour. It appeared he couldn't control his own body when performing as if some violently expressive demon took a hold of his movements. Perhaps in some way they were connected to or expressed his bouts of epilepsy, a condition possibly exacerbated by medieaval medicinal prescriptions. Neither, it seems, could he control the needless embarassment and shame that accompanied his periodic fits.

On the flip side, the film depicts control is in its flawless technical execution. Shot beautifully in widescreen black and white, every frame and detail is composed, unsurprisingly with a great photographer’s eye. Corbijn said he didn’t really think he had a choice when it came to shooting in colour or black and white – all the images and footage taken of the band were in black and white and its how he’s seen and created images for years.

Who would have thought late Seventies, working-class Macclesfield would look so cinematic? Director of photography Martin Ruhe and Corbijn have done a marvellous job and unlike many other relatively recent attempts at black and white, this has been lit by people who know how to light black and white rather than simply drain the colour in post-production. The film also has an unusually consistent pace throughout, it's relatively slow but very but never gets dull, for we get time to study the expressions and body language of everyone in the frame and wonder what they’re thinking and feeling. When I asked the director about this (especially in relation to today’s wham bam editing frenzies) he said: "I like watching people move, I like seeing someone walk down a street". Not a particularly attention-grabbing quote but the information is there – let's see an action in its entirety rather than cut away.

This is a film where, although individual frames could be taken home and put up on the wall to quietly study and enjoy, the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. It could be seen as a series of still portraits of quiet moments and subtle gestures that are somehow alive and moving and it is this very fact that the few times we do see the band perform with Curtis’ trademark strait-jacketed arm flailing that it sends an electric jolt of excitement through the system. It’s the contrast between these few dramatic moments and events and the quiet tone of the rest of the film that makes the impact is so startling.

Newcomer Sam Riley does a magnificient job of appearing to completely inhabit rather than just emulate Ian Curtis and its a credit to him the performance is so subtle and restrained that it brings the contrasting and dramatic elememts in his life sharply into relief. Riley mused at a recent press conference that "Elvis had the pelvis, Curtis had the arms", but Control is no bag of rock 'n' roll cliches. Curtis comes across as a slight whisper of a man, a kind and gentle soul who might have been happier helping old ladies cross the road yet couldnt help getting sucked into periodic bursts of creative outpourings so intense that the rest of the world ceased to exist as he penned his now well known lyrics.

The rest of the cast provide solid support, particularly Craig Parkinson's Tony Wilson, last played by Steve Coogan in 24 Hr Party People, and Samantha Morton as Curtis' loving, loyal but eventually sidelined wife. Morton effortlessly radiates both the angelic warmth and the raw emotional vulnerabilty she has become well known for and its hard to take your eyes off her, even when the remarkable Riley shares the screen.

And finally there's the music. We get to hear some classic Bowie tracks early on as Curtis slowly gets drawn into the music scene, there's a brief pit stop at a Sex Pistols concert and then, of course, there's the genesis and unfolding of Joy Division. Half the chosen tracks play on the soundtrack but the rest are performed live by Riley and his co-stars. They learnt their instruments from scratch, learnt the songs and performed them live during the shoot, making it all the more remarkable that not only was it achieved at all but that it looks and feels completely convincing. As Alexandra Maria Lara who plays Riley's exotic 'away' lover Annik Honore said herself, the fact that the actors became an actual band from scratch and performed to the degree they did in only a matter of weeks "is a miracle". But it's not necessary to have a love or knowledge of Joy Division for Control is simply a great film in its own right, a uniquely original portrait of a tormented soul and made with passion and vision. About time.

Reviewed on: 21 Aug 2007
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The short, anguished life of Joy Division's lead singer.
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Chris ****

Director: Anton Corbijn

Writer: Matt Greenhalgh, based on the book Touching From A Distance by Deborah Curtis

Starring: Sam Riley, Samantha Morton, Alexandra Maria Lara, Toby Kebbell, Craig Parkinson, Joe Anderson, James Anthony Pearson

Year: 2006

Runtime: 123 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK

Festivals:

EIFF 2007

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If you like this, try:

Joy Division