CANNES -- Any biography of a fringe performer with a cult following must give the uninitiated some clue as to what the fuss was about or it will never appeal beyond a small circle. Anton Corbijn's "Control," covering the short life of 1970s British rocker Ian Curtis of Joy Division, captures the period nicely. It features lots of music from that time, and it has decent performances, but it fails to make the case for its fallen star.
English movies about Northern factory boys played by Albert Finney or Tom Courtney, who wanted to escape their bleak environment, used to travel well back in the 1960s, but this black-and-white kitchen-sink drama about a fragile pop singer is unlikely to follow in their path.
The setting is Macclesfield in 1973, where nervous and stringy Curtis (Sam Riley) daydreams in chemistry class but can quote Wordsworth and gets a job in the local employment exchange. He writes, too, but the film shows no evidence of him having any vocal ability until he volunteers to become the singer in a local band who call themselves Warsaw.
The other members -- played by James Anthony Pearson, Joe Anderson and Harry Treadaway -- describe themselves as "shite," but they land a deal at Factory Records, the Manchester label whose story was told in Michael Winterbottom's 2002 film "24 Hour Party People."
Other than showing Curtis noodling with the occasional lyric, the film shows nothing of songwriting or rehearsing, but taking the name Joy Division from a German military outfit, the band attracts a substantial local following.
Scenes of them performing in local clubs, with the actors doing the singing, are intercut with Curtis' home life. Having stolen his mate's girlfriend, Debbie (Samantha Morton), he marries her, and soon they have a daughter and they all live in a drab terraced house on a dull city street.
Meanwhile, back at the pop ranch, Joy Division is becoming a hit and Curtis a bit of a star. That means audience adulation and groupies, one of who is a tasty Belgian bird named Annik (Alexandra Maria Lara) who poses as a journalist but gets more than just a few quotes.
This causes Curtis much anguish, but things become even more complicated when he discovers that the cause of his occasional fits is epilepsy, and it's getting worse. Eventually, as the band gets bigger, the emotional crisis grows and Curtis commits suicide.
Riley does a good job as the lanky singer with such jerky stage movements that he made Joe Cocker look like Sinatra, and Morton makes a convincing job of the dreary betrayed wife. It's all very dull, however, with the early scenes mostly about showing Curtis on his bed, stripped to the waste and smoking cigarettes.
Finney and Courtenay's characters in those old English dramas never pretended to have any talent, they just wanted to escape. By contrast, Curtis is made to look like a bland grammar school boy who leaves wife, baby, girlfriend, bandmates and fans in the lurch because he can't stand the heat of fame. Some rocker that.
La Fabrique de Films
Northsea Ltd., Momentum Films, Becker Films International
Director: Anton Corbijn
Screenwriter: Matt Greenhaigh
Based on "Touching the Distance" by: Deborah Curtis
Producers: Orian Williams, Anton Corbijn
Director of photography: Martin Ruhe
Art director: Chris Roope
Co-producer: Iain Canning
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editor: Andrew Hulme
Ian Curtis: Sam Riley
Debbie Curtis: Samantha Morton
Annik Honore: Alexandra Maria Lara
Hooky: Joe Anderson
Bernard Sumner: James Anthony Pearson
Rob Gretton: Toby Kebbell
Tony Wilson: Craig Parkinson
Steve Morris: Harry Treadaway
Terry: Andrew Sheridan
Twinny: Robert Shelly
Running time -- 119 minutes
No MPAA rating