In May 1980 Joy Division were at the height of their success: their Factory Records-released debut Unknown Pleasures had received great critical acclaim, and the band were preparing for what would surely have been a make or break American tour. Yet, on the 18th of that month, frontman Ian Curtis took his own life. The years preceding Curtis's suicide at the age of twenty-three are the subject of Anton Corbijn's feature film directorial debut, Control. Based on the book Touching from A Distance by Curtis's ex-wife Deborah, the film follows the life of the troubled musician, from his schooldays in the early seventies through the success of Joy Division and up to his death in 1980. It also deals with his rocky marriage to Deborah and his affair with Belgian journalist Annik Honoré.
There were more than a few raised eyebrows when Dutch photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn was asked to consider Control for his first feature, but it seems that his previous experience has served him well. Filmed in striking black and white, every frame in Control could easily be mounted and put on a wall, a testament to the strong visual style that Corbjin has developed over the years. His haunting cinematography mirrors both the film's dark subject matter and the lyrics of the Joy Division songs that form the soundtrack. Corbijn's own experience of working with the band months before Curtis's death gives him a level of sensitivity towards his material that another filmmaker would not have access to. Newcomer Sam Riley in the role of Curtis gives a superb performance as the epileptic, lonely frontman. The physical resemblance between Riley and Curtis is uncanny and, in surprisingly authentic-looking concert footage, Riley proves that he has the voice and mannerisms to match the man himself. He holds his own against the more experienced Samantha Morton, who, in her touching performance as Deborah Curtis, reminds audiences that love really did tear Ian Curtis apart.
One noteworthy aspect of the film is that throughout, Riley and the on-screen band (Joe Anderson as Peter Hook, James Anthony Pearson as Bernard Sumner, and Harry Treadaway as Steven Morris) provide the soundtrack, with the real Joy Division heard only when "Atmosphere" plays over the end credits. At that point we finally realise that the actors have not been synching to Joy Division music: they have been sounding like the band, as well as portraying their characters.
Control manages to avoid the trap of a facile dependence on cause and effect that so many biopics fall into, so that, instead of stumbling along as a work of sentimentality, the film is genuinely moving and as enigmatic as Curtis himself. Should any viewer need to be reminded that the film is about a personal tragedy rather than a public burnout and rock martyrdom, Corbjin's decision not to show Curtis's death on-screen does just that.
Charting the life of a man who turned his anger inward (unlike others who grew up with the punk scene) was never going to be an easy task, but Corbjin, his cast and crew tackle it with just the right amount of respect and reverence to set Control apart from innumerable other rock biopics. Control is not about finding an answer to why Curtis killed himself, though it does have several suggestions. It ultimately leaves the legend of Ian Curtis intact, and, for the brooding prince of post-punk, this is profoundly fitting.--Jodie Fairclough
Jodie Fairclough comes from Preston, and is currently studying Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies at university.--The Editor
Lionel Jeffries' The Railway Children
The best children's films can also be enjoyed by adults, and Lionel Jeffries' 1970 classic is one of the very best. Known as an actor for a good line in English eccentrics, Jeffries was inspired to make a film of The Railway Children while re-reading his favourite children's book on a flight home from Hollywood, where he had been playing the part of King Pellinore in Camelot.
The screenplay is excellent, though anyone familiar with the book will easily spot Jeffries' additions. Very occasionally these are anachronistic or jarring, but on the whole Jeffries succeeds in imitating the tone of the book, skilfully filling in scenes that it only alludes to, such as the pantomime (where the children's father, frustrated by the repeated question "Do you believe in fairies?" bellows "Yes, I most certainly DO!") The comic embellishments—such as the brass band's failure to keep in time at the prize-giving ceremony— lighten and provide a counterpoint to Nesbit's endearing earnestness.
It must have been daunting to play such well-loved characters, but the cast are wonderful. Jenny Agutter is a perfect Bobbie, sweet and pensive, while Sally Thomsett is all toothy enthusiasm as Phyllis, and Gary F. Warren, a well-known child actor who also starred in the second series of Catweazle, is charmingly self-assured and chirpy as Peter. The marvellous Dinah Sheridan perfectly embodies Mother's outward cheeriness and inner desperation (encapsulated in the famous injunction to the children, after Father's arrest, "We've got to play at being poor"). Comedian Bernard Cribbins makes a meal of his part as Perks, and Peter Bromilow turns in a kindly and sardonic performance as the local doctor. In fact, the only real casting flaw is William Mervyn's overly amiable Old Gentleman. Meticulous attention is paid to period detail, including Art Deco wallpapers, a cameo brooch, and a leaky boiler; at one point Jeffries has the cook in the children's London home deliver a rousing rendition of the big music-hall hit The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo. The soundtrack alternates between two nostalgic string and piano themes that evoke Edwardian light music, with occasional moments of mischievous humour (such as the blare of bagpipes when the Scotch Flyer trundles by). The photography is lyrical: much beauty is derived from the contrast between the train's white steam and the green of the surrounding hills, and there are some loving close-ups of flowers. In one memorable shot the photographer shoots through a clump of buttercups, surrounding the family with a golden haze. The famous birthday party scene is photographed so that Bobbie seems to floats around the room with happiness.
Unlike her younger siblings, Bobbie cannot console herself with sending love to Father via the London train, and her anxiety forms an ever-present undercurrent in an otherwise episodic plot. It makes all the more resonant the other cases of hardship and injustice that the children encounter, such as the plight of the Russian political refugee whom their mother takes in.
The landslide scene is unconvincing, and the makeup is also a flaw: Agutter is far too pale. Overall, however, the film is a treasure. Jeffries' whimsical lightness of touch extracts full flavour from even the most inconsequential scenes, bringing Nesbit's parable about injustice, courage, family loyalty, and the kindness of strangers perfectly to life. --Isabel Taylor