Though based on Touching from a Distance, Deborah Curtiss revealing, mystique-busting account of her miserable marriage to Ian Curtis, lead singer of the short-lived but enormously influential Manchester band Joy Division, photographer and video director Anton Corbijn’s beautifully austere biopic is something of a whitewash. While vividly re-creating a...read more
Though based on Touching from a Distance, Deborah Curtiss revealing, mystique-busting account of her miserable marriage to Ian Curtis, lead singer of the short-lived but enormously influential Manchester band Joy Division, photographer and video director Anton Corbijn’s beautifully austere biopic is something of a whitewash. While vividly re-creating a very specific time and place the economically and spiritually depressed industrial English north of the late 1970s Corbijn and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh have fashioned an Ian Curtis most can agree on and nearly everyone can like. No longer the selfish, controlling and often cruelly indifferent young husband and father of his widow’s memoir, Curtis has become a haunted innocent plagued by epilepsy, phenobarbiturate side effects and guilt over his adultery, a lost soul who wound up hanging himself on a spring day in 1980 on the eve of the band’s first U.S. tour. (The remaining members of Curtis’ band would soldier on toward international superstardom as New Order). A romantic victim to the end, this Ian Curtis is all that worshipful fans could ever hope for.
Macclesfield, 1973: High-school student Ian Curtis (Sam Riley) returns home to his parents’ house in the drab Cheshire suburb, dons his sister’s mascara and dreams of one day becoming a rock star like his idols David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Ian is occasionally joined by his friend Nick (Matthew McNulty) and Nick’s girlfriend, Deborah (Samantha Morton), who Ian soon steals out from under Nick’s nose. They marry two years later, an impulsive decision both teenagers will soon regret. Ian’s rock dreams seems less like idle fantasy when the Sex Pistols play their legendary 1976 gig at the Manchester Lesser Free Trade Hall and kick-start the city’s own DIY punk revolution. Ian is soon asked to join a fledging Manchester band featuring guitarist Bernard Sumner (James Anthony Pearson), bassist Peter Hook (Joe Anderson) and eventually drummer Steve Morris (Harry Treadaway). After a number of dodgy gigs as the rudimentary punk group Warsaw, the lads find an enthusiastic manager, Rob Gretton (Toby Kebbell), and Ian finds his own distinctive voice, a chillingly sepulchral basso profundo that brings a stately, haunted gravitas to the band’s rapidly developing sound. They also indulge their fascination with fascist iconography and adopt a new name, Joy Division, taken from a lurid novel about a Nazi concentration camp bordello. After Ian verbally abuses local TV announcer Tony Wilson (Craig Parkinson) at a club, daring him to put Joy Division on Wilson’s tea-time show “So It Goes,” the band makes their television debut. Their performance of their single “Transmission” anchored by Ian’s eerie, unsettling intensity is revelatory. Deborah, meanwhile, begins to sense the gulf widening between them she’s bewildered to learn that no one in the band even knew she’d become pregnant and even though the band is making waves, Ian and Deborah are still desperately poor. One night while driving back from Joy Division’s disappointing first gig in London, Ian experiences a grand mal seizure, the result of an undiagnosed epileptic condition. His doctor puts him on a regimen of powerful barbiturates in hopes of hitting on a combination that works, but the side effects soon take their toll, deepening Ian’s depression over the seizures, which he soon begins experiencing on stage. None of this, however, prevents Ian from embarking on a passionate affair with the Belgian translator Annik Honore (Alexandra Maria Lara) he meets while on tour, but soon the complications of lying to Deborah and the band’s exhausting performance schedule push Ian further toward the brink of despair.
Corbijn’s film serves as an undeniably powerful vehicle for newcomer Riley; his looks and his vocals are a dead ringer for Curtis’, and the anguish he brings to bear on the last weeks of Curtis’ life is frighteningly palpable. But Corbijn breathes in too heavily the death-cult fug that has only thickened since Curtis’ suicide, and the treatment of his character is too reverential to be really revealing. And for all its subtlety of detail, the film is unimaginatively literal when it comes to matching the band’s music to scenes from Ian’s life: An outburst from Deborah leads Ian to write “She’s Lost Control”; Deborah jealously tossing Ian’s room for evidence of his affair with Annik is predictably set to “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and that final image an iconic, death-cult moment if there ever were one is set to the glacially funereal “Atmosphere” (and be sure to exit the theater before the Killers launch into their crap cover of “Shadowplay” over the end credits). In addition to Corbijn’s unerring sense of spatial composition, however, there are flashes of insight and near brilliance. You can practically smell the spilled beer and stale cigarettes in the grimy basement clubs where the Joy Division legend was born, and that sudden transition from the band recording “She’s Lost Control” in the studio with famed producer Martin Hannett (Ben Naylor) to a live performance of the same song says all there needs to be said about the presence and power of Joy Division.
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