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Control

Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn treats

Control

like a working class story in which one of the characters happens to end up in a band. We find Curtis (played by 10,000 Things' lead singer Sam Riley) in drab and dreary Macclesfield, a once-thriving textile town. He writes poetry, seems a bit solitary, and definitely harbors a rebellious attitude. He hooks up with some other youths and they decide to form a band. At the same time, he takes the very conventional route of getting married early to a local girl named Deborah (Samantha Morton) and having a kid. He also maintains a nine-to-five government job helping to employ the mentally and physically handicapped in appropriate jobs.

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The band meets Tony Wilson in Control (Weinstein Company)

Slowly the band gains recognition. Their first "breakthrough" is getting their record mentioned on Tony Wilson's TV show. But Curtis reprimands Wilson for not putting the band itself on TV. This inspires Wilson (here played by Craig Parkinson but earlier played by Steve Coogan in the film about Wilson 24 Hour Party People ) to book the band and then to sign them to his Factory Records. (As in 24 Hour Party People , Wilson signs the contract in his own blood, but that may be a myth Wilson himself created.)

The band initially strives for a punk sound, but eventually develops a style of their own featuring the dark musings of Curtis' lyrics. They gain some fame but still live in their working class neighborhood. Curtis enters into an affair with a foreign journalist, Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara), but can't quite bring himself to leave his wife and young child. Complicating his life further is the fact that he develops epilepsy and the prescription drugs he's put on place an additional stress and toll on him. On the eve of their planned U.S. tour, Curtis commits suicide. (The surviving band members built on their Joy Division success by later regrouping as New Order.)

Corbijn does a superb job of contrasting Curtis' working class, conventional life with his dark, rebellious art. In one brilliant scene, Corbijn shows Curtis heading off to work and wearing a white shirt and tie as well as a jacket with the word "HATE" in large letters on the back. He then settles in at his government job and politely helps the handicapped find jobs. The simple sequence conveys the boredom and drudgery of his life, the punk influence encouraging rebellion and the lack of hope and opportunity for young people in his Macclesfield town.

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Sam Riley and Alexandra Maria Lara in Control (Weinstein Company)

Despite a music video background, Corbijn never treats anything -- not even the live performances -- like an MTV music video. The band's performances, in which the actors actually played the songs, come across as if they were actually caught live performing. This approach contributes to the film's naturalism. Corbijn's background in photography may have figured in his decision to film Control in glorious black and white. That background may have also contributed to the way he carefully frames his shots and to his ability to capture both the characters and their environment in evocative ways. He frequently keeps the depth of field narrow so that we stay focused on Riley's Curtis and his perceptions of what's going on.The black and white is also perfectly suited to the bleak Macclesfield setting and to Curtis' image as a doomed rocker. Corbijn certainly knows how to make actor Sam Riley convey a cool sense of gloom and depression.

Riley does an amazing job of channeling Ian Curtis. Check out this music video of Love Will Tear Us Apart with the real Ian Curtis to see what a fine job he does. But it's not a stunt performance in which all efforts are placed on getting the outward similarities down pat. This is not a mere impersonation. Riley creates a credible interior life as well, revealing the contrast between Curtis' conventional life and darkly hued creative skill. He shows that there's a certain safety in his relationship with Deborah, yet an irresistible allure in Annik, and he can't decide which relationship is the one he can commit to. The women represent his two different worlds and his torment at being asked to choose between the two.

Curtis' life presents a lot of familiar ground for a rock biography yet Corbijn diffuses the cliches with his attention to detail and his insistence that he is making a portrait of a particular individual. His low key, casual approach proves compelling and effective. And because there is an emphasis on character, you don't have to know anything about Curtis, Joy Division or post-punk bands to appreciate the film.

Control (rated R for language and brief sexuality) is a brilliant feature debut by Corbijn and a compelling portrait of the life and art of the late Ian Curtis.

Listen to our Film Club discussion of Control .

Companion viewing: Once, Look Back in Anger, The Filth and the Fury, 24 Hour Party People

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