The critics were crawling over themselves to get their labels of “marvellous”, “outstanding”, “the coolest British film of the year” splashed across posters and advertisements of this film. It’s British, it’s set in grim-ish 70s, it’s based on a true and depressing story about an iconic figure, and it’s in black and white. Even if you don’t understand a single second of it, there’s something about Control that made lowly critics think “yes, this is a film I should like, ergo I’ll throw out a one-word appraisal to try and get on posters and be seen to support “cool” British films.” Naturally I don’t group myself in with other critics. I mean, I use the word “ergo” in my opening paragraph. I’m just in a different league.
Anyway, ignoring all the tosh praise, Control is one of those films that will rattle your emotions - and here you thought I was going to disagree with plebby critics. Well, I might shortly, but right now I must sprinkle praise where praise is due. For Control paints a bleak picture of a bright spark, troubled by fame, family and his own brain, and it certainly grasps at the emotion strings, especially since you know what’s coming. Joy Division were before my time (I’m THAT youthful), but after teachings from 2002’s 24 Hour Party People, and an inherit Mancunian pride despite not liking a vast amount of Mancunian product, I knew that the band a) were genre-carving, and b) had a singer who committed suicide. It doesn’t really bode well for a happy ending.
Control is based on the book by Deborah Curtis, Ian’s widow, and follows Ian’s story from his teenage meeting with her, through his rise to fame, and onwards to his unfortunate finish.
Leading the film is relative newcomer Sam Riley, giving a sultry, powerful performance, particularly when mimicking the staggering on-stage presence of Curtis. He’s supported by producer Samantha Morton as Curtis’ devoted wife, turning in a solid performance as expected from the Mighty Morton (that’s what they call her. Honest.) and a gaggle of fellows playing recognisable names from the era, including Tony Wilson. It’s almost a companion piece to Winterbottom’s 24-Hour, picking out one strand of the story and exploring it in detail - albeit leaving most of the comedy out, although a few laughs are to be had with the band’s manager.
Mostly, though, this is a film matching Curtis’ downcast gaze. He’s unhappy, his wife’s unhappy, we’re all unhappy, and no one gets any happier when Curtis confuses his life and mind even further by embarking on an affair. It seems the more successful his band becomes, the more unhappy he is, and the more tangled his romantic life becomes. Generally I can cope with unhappy, and have practically wished for it in the last few films, but when unhappy begins to drag, alarm-bells start to ring. At 123 minutes, Control isn’t the longest film in the world, but it’s certainly not the shortest, and after the 90 minute mark you start to become conscious of the time. Everyone’s pretty miserable by this point, and for the last half hour it’s just one long tudge towards the inevitable.
It’s a shame, because such an electrifying performance from Riley is thinned out by the running-time. The direction of the plot also seems to lack ‘control’, flittering between a tale of the band, exploring Curtis’ personal battle, and the frustration from his women. A little more focus, preferably on Curtis himself, would have gone a long way. But still, this is a strong film, with a belting sound-track and performances, and a fascinating character study. You will come out with a distinct melancholic after-taste and a sore behind (from sitting for so long of course) but it is worth a gander. Not so much “marvellous” as “pretty good”, Control just slides in with a CF2.