Unknown Pressures: Sam Riley?s Ian Curtis sweats his struggles in private.
Unknown Pressures: Sam Riley?s Ian Curtis sweats his struggles in private.

While American Gangster provides the details of a previously shadowy career, Control meticulously reconstructs a well-known life, at least to Joy Division fans. Photographer and music-video director Anton Corbijn’s impressive first feature could be considered simply an addendum to 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, which observed Ian Curtis’ 23-year life from the perspective of Factory Records founder Tony Wilson. This film offers most of the same characters and many of the same events. But Corbijn’s less sardonic, more empathetic approach transforms the story, which ultimately is quietly moving.

The film opens in Macclesfield, south of Manchester, in 1973. Teenage Ian (Sam Riley) is a Wordsworth fan and Bowie obsessive with the darkly charismatic manner of a potential cult leader. He coolly steals his best friend’s girlfriend, Debbie (Samantha Morton), and proposes marriage during a walk in the country. They move into a small rowhouse and have a baby, and Ian takes a job as an unemployment-office counselor. Then life is transformed by the Sex Pistols gig attended by Manchester’s future punk elite. Ian becomes the singer of Warsaw, which becomes Joy Division. One of Ian’s clients has an epileptic fit, and he writes “She’s Lost Control.” He’ll soon show symptoms of epilepsy himself.

Control adds many particulars that aren’t in 24 Hour Party People, but two are significant: Manager Rob Gretton (a brash Toby Kebbell) is portrayed as meaner and more manipulative, and Ian’s relationship with Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara) is central to his fate. Annik, a punk fanzine writer and employee of the Belgian Embassy in London, meets Ian while doing an interview. She helps arrange a European tour for the band—a fan’s gift but also a way to have the singer to herself, away from Debbie. Ian is captivated by Annik but not prepared to leave his wife. The success of the band, and his epilepsy, is overwhelming him. In May 1980, just a few days before Joy Division is scheduled to make its U.S. debut at the brand-new 9:30 Club, he hangs himself.

Though adapted from Debbie Curtis’ memoir, Touching From a Distance, Matt Greenhalgh’s script doesn’t have an overarching agenda. Morton, who usually plays oddballs, is convincingly ordinary as Debbie, and Riley’s Ian is neither victim nor madman but something more touching: a regular working-class guy crushed, in part, by his own adolescent fantasies. (In a telling exchange with Annik, Ian says his favorite color is the “Manc City blue” of one of the local football teams.) The use of Joy Division’s most iconic songs is predictable—Ian sings “Isolation” in an isolation booth—yet effective. Of course, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” will start after a meltdown between Ian and Debbie, but it works nonetheless. The song is, after all, movie music; its epic synth fanfare presages a whole generation of “cinematic” British art-popsters.

Filmed in black and white and exquisitely framed, Control displays a still-photographer’s eye. The shabbiness of ’70s Britain is carefully evoked, and the compositions frequently show Ian dwarfed or imprisoned by his surroundings. For its first half, the movie seems detached and a little dutiful, as if it were a pageant of the passion of a punk martyr. As Curtis’ mastery of his life declines, however, the story’s emotional power grows. The suicide, having been so well-documented, is not especially wrenching. But Ian’s death is followed by a few quick vignettes that amplify its impact, notably a lovely moment in which the band and Gretton, seated in a pub, are joined by a fifth person. Life goes on, and Control—unlike some Joy Division fans—declines to celebrate its rash, premature end.