Anton Corbijn's glorious biography of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis is the film of the year. It bids farewell to the 1970s as fiercely as Withnail did the 60s

Ian Curtis's great and terrible prophecy, the one about love tearing us apart, is followed through to its fulfilment in Anton Corbijn's glorious movie, filmed in stunning high-contrast monochrome by cinematographer Martin Ruhe.

It is the best film of the year: a tender, bleakly funny and superbly acted biopic of Curtis, the legendary lead singer of new wave band Joy Division, who in 1980 committed suicide on the eve of his first US tour: suffering from epilepsy and depression, agonised by a failing marriage, stunned by the ambiguous waves of violence and nihilism his music had unleashed and terrified by the accelerating bandwagon of celebrity. And all this in an impossibly distant age when no one seemed to have the smallest clue how to manage either chronic illness or pop music careers. It's a film that says goodbye to the English 1970s as fiercely as Withnail bade farewell to the 60s.

Sam Riley is outstanding as the sensitive, awkward Curtis, and Samantha Morton gives a career-best performance in the self-effacing role of Deborah, his almost child bride, the teenage sweetheart whose heart he was to break - with his own shattered as collateral damage. Toby Kebbell is brilliant as the band's wisecracking manager, Rob Gretton, and Craig Parkinson does Tony Wilson's memory proud, playing the remarkable aesthete-entrepreneur who put Joy Division in front of the television cameras.

The other co-stars are all the little details captured by Ruhe's camera: the English decor of the working- and middle-class, the streets, the gigs, the halls, the sheer backstage grot of everything captured in passionate, particulate detail, and the black-and-white photography makes Macclesfield look perversely gorgeous. The music is superbly convincing: especially Curtis's weird crooning groan of a voice, with bizarre hints of a funereal Bing Crosby, along with Bowie and Reed. It is all minutely observed period stuff, yet without the need to drag out the cliches, the Spacehoppers and the TV clips of Mrs Thatcher.

It all looked so vividly real to my fortysomething eye that, frankly, I thought I'd died and gone to Q-magazine-reading 50-quid bloke heaven. And when John Cooper Clarke came on playing himself, a support act to Joy Division when they were called Warsaw, I pretty well levitated out of my seat with sheer happiness, and had to be tied back down with guy-ropes.

What a fantastic film this is. Corbijn famously started out as a photographer who recorded Joy Division's existence with still images, and, in triumph, he's transferred that achievement to the cinema. When you look at photos of 70s punks and new-wave bands now, they look like the starveling relics of a much earlier age: the seedy 50s, or the hungry 40s. Maybe this inspired Corbijn and Ruhe to recreate the kitchen-sink visual sense of the British free cinema. With its grim pram outside in the streets, and that ill-starred laundry rack hanging in the kitchen, his movie is like A Taste of Honey crossed with The Sorrows of Young Werther. Control reaches back also to Christopher Petit's Radio On, from 1979. And there is an electrifying moment when poor Ian, oppressed by fatherhood, stares into the pram occupied by his baby daughter, Natalie, and sees only a dark blank where her face should be - like his own yawning grave - and he assumes the stricken look of Jack Nance in David Lynch's Eraserhead.

Ian Curtis made the ultimate rock'n'roll career move, but Corbijn de-ironises and demystifies this: his approach is intensely protective. Curtis had, after all, some very non-rock'n'roll things in his life: a heartbreakingly traditional wedding at the age of 19, and a day job as an adviser at the local labour exchange, a responsibility he discharged according to his lights - that is, with genuine concern, but with the word "hate" Tippexed on the back of his jacket. (Imagine being out of work and finding that the person you're relying on to get your life back on track was Ian Curtis.)

The Curtis who comes out of this film is not a proto-emo self-harmer, but a thwarted Wordsworthian romantic - an idea reinforced by the film's soaring final image. Here was a poetic soul who founded a band and proposed marriage from precisely the same sort of generous impulse, and yet found that his art could express only the darker side. He had no notion of what a career might mean, and what touring would do to his marriage: Curtis finds himself blindsided by a new passion for beautiful fanzine journalist Annik Honoré (Alexandra Maria Lara).

Then of course there is his epilepsy: and Control boldly shows Curtis succumbing to a spectacular epileptic episode at the climax of one gig and having to be dragged off stage by mates and crew, who had no idea what to do. "It could be worse," laughs Gretton cheerfully as Curtis lies semi-conscious in his dressing room, "you could be in the Fall." That was the nearest Ian Curtis ever got to therapy.

Corbijn quite rightly does not try to romanticise his condition as a part of any supposed genius or transcendental ecstatic state - though he does show how Curtis's elbows-akimbo running-on-the-spot stage moves were perhaps influenced by epilepsy, unconsciously. It is simply and unsentimentally shown as the obstacle to his life and his art: and Curtis is shown being as scared as a little boy as it dawns on him that his epilepsy could take everything away from him at any time.

Control is a film about England, about music, about loneliness and love; there is melancholy in it, but also a roar of energy. I thought it might depress me. Instead I left the cinema walking on air.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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