The 1980 suicide of Ian Curtis, lead singer of the British rock quartet Joy Division, is a poignant side plot in 2002's raucous survey of the Manchester music scene, "24 Hour Party People." Watching "Control," which places the melancholy trajectory of Curtis' life front and center, your correspondent confesses that, as much as he admires the craft and intensity of Anton Corbjin's biopic, he couldn't help but remember how much better a time he had at Michael Winterbottom's woozier but more exuberant movie.
Still, "Control" keeps you riveted in ways that "24 Hour Party People" doesn't, primarily because of the investment of craft and conviction by all concerned. As Deborah Curtis, the woman who marries Ian, bears his child and suffers his fame almost as much as he does, Samantha Morton again shows why she's one of her generation's best actors, conveying her open-hearted wonder that she could love such a complex, volatile person and the excruciating anxiety that comes when he drifts away from her -- first emotionally, then literally.
But it is Sam Riley, in his first lead role as Curtis, who provides constant revelation in "Control." That Curtis was a moody individual with blazing charisma and lurking demons is obvious to anyone who already knows his story. Yet what's remarkable about Riley's performance is the way he makes Curtis' often-opaque personality so recognizably, palpably human. Riley resists the temptation toward pop hagiography and makes Curtis into someone both approachable and forbidding in any time frame, on any street corner.
And, in case you were wondering, the original Joy Division's music is rendered so perfectly here that you almost can't tell the difference between the movie's band and the real group's recording of "Atmosphere" that accompanies the closing credits.
"Control." MPAA rating: R (for sexual references and drug content). Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute. In limited release.