Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Control: A fitting tribute to Ian Curtis

Control (drama, biography, music)
Directed by Anton Corbijn
Starring Sam Riley, Samantha Morton and Alexandra Maria Lara

Alliance | 2007 | 122 min | Rated R | Released Mar 08, 2011

Video codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Video resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English, French: Dolby Digital 5.1


50GB Blu-ray Disc
DVD copy

The Film 5/5

Control won 25 awards, including three at Cannes, and was nominated for two BAFTA awards in the UK. The film is yet to receive a Blu-ray release in the US, but has been released in Germany and Canada. This review covers the Canadian version, which is locked to Region A.

The film made just under $8 million worldwide owing to the dark subject matter and the fact that Joy Division’s music still isn’t widely known. That’s a shame because Corbijn (The American) has made a wonderful film.

This is the story of Ian Curtis who was the lead singer for Joy Division until his suicide in 1980. He died on May 18, so it was 31 years ago today at the time of writing.

I wanted to see the film because Joy Division is still one of my Top 5 bands 30 years later. I know who made me the tape so that I could hear debut album Unknown Pleasures for the first time and I remember who I was with and where I was when the news leaked that Curtis was dead.

It wasn't easy to find a theater which was showing the film when it was released so I ended up hunting down an obscure run-down cinema in downtown Toronto to even see it. About six other people showed up. Every single one appeared deeply moved and on the verge of tears after the film. I’m happy to finally own it on Blu-ray.

The main problem I have with this review is that I went in loving the band and knowing most of the story. Did it work for me because of that, or is it truly a great story that will appeal to people who know nothing about Curtis or Joy Division? It partly depends on whether you like the dark, brooding music, but it works for some people who don’t like the band at all.

The film is bleak. It appears in black and white and is set in a northern town in England (Macclesfield). The houses are small, the streets are narrow and it rains often. This is all true. It's a depressing part of the country. The dreary setting matches the atmosphere of the music and the band’s tale. The film shows how the band came into existence and their early successes such as recording, getting a recording contract and appearing on TV, but this isn’t a true biopic.

Although I knew the lyrics and understood what the words meant before I saw the film, I didn't know the origin of those lyrics. The film ties together some of the events in the life of Curtis with the origin of the songs. When you see what She's Lost Control is really about, it adds new layers of meaning. If you think Love Will Tear Us Apart sounds like a pop song, it takes on a more sinister tone when you understand why he wrote it.

The actors rehearsed together to get the songs right so that they could play them in the film rather than miming. Corbijn never intended to include real performances of the music, but the "band" convinced him. The first time I heard the first note of the first song played in the film, I felt a huge surge of emotion.

Sam Riley manages to look very similar to Curtis and must have spent a long time studying the few examples of Curtis performing the songs. He mimics the actions perfectly and sounds like him too. It was almost like stepping back in time and experiencing a Joy Division concert. Samantha Morton gives a strong performance, managing to look like a young girl and then his wife and the mother of his child.

There's a lot of truth in this film too. Deborah Curtis (his wife) wrote the book Touching From A Distance which tells what really happened. The screenplay was adapted from that book and the details are as true as possible. Corbijn shot some of the iconic photographs of Curtis and the band while working as a photographer for the New Musical Express in England. This was a labor of love.

The result is a moving drama detailing the final few years of Curtis’s life. It doesn't hold much back, showing his faults as well as his redeeming qualities. It's the story of a young man (23 when he died) who was in a situation he couldn't control. Loving and hating two different women, a parent at a young age, success at a level that was hard to imagine and all the while dealing with epilepsy. His character says in the film that the audience didn't realize how much he gave during a performance, or how draining it was and how painful to access the emotions to perform those songs. To the audience, they were songs. To Curtis, they were hideous parts of his life.

I found the film incredibly moving, haunting, captivating, happy and sad. I'm glad that Curtis will be introduced to new audiences through this film. Joy Division is important to me and Control is one of the most prized Blu-rays in my collection.

Video Quality 4.5/5
The film was shot in color and transferred to black and white and the images suit the mood of the film perfectly. Detail is sharp throughout and the print is clean and natural in appearance. I have also seen the German release and the presentation is similar. It’s hard to imagine the film looking any better.

Audio Quality 5/5
The sound is the best I have ever heard where music is concerned. It’s as good as listening to a CD on high quality equipment. The songs have a lot of depth and range and it’s easy to pick out individual instruments. The dialogue is also clear.

Special Features 4/5

Audio commentary with director Anton Corbijn.

Making of Control, featuring interviews with Corbijn, the writer and some of the actors (24 minutes).

Extended live performances from the film:

Leaders of Men

Music Videos:

Atmosphere – Joy Division
Transmission – Joy Division
Shadowplay – The Killers

Two theatrical trailers.

Joy Division’s music isn’t for everyone, but this is an interesting look at the life of Ian Curtis whether you are a fan or not. The presentation from Alliance is superb and I would recommend it to anyone capable of viewing Region A material. The actors do a wonderful job and the music sounds authentic. It will send shivers down your spine.


  1. Great write up Steve.
    All the best, mark m.

  2. Thanks Mark,

    I'm glad you enjoyed it.