Saturday, October 13, 2007


It's really a kitchen sink drama - a thoughtful young man, marries, a simple uncomplicated northern lass, a loving woman who makes few demands on him. He finds himself living with a pregnant, slightly gauche wife, in a dreary half decorated terraced house. This is the late seventies in the north west of England. The post-punk band he'd recently joined, rapidly becomes a hotly sought after property. Whilst on tour he's interviewed by an intelligent, attractive Belgian woman, whom he starts a long-term secret affair with. Loving both woman, from two entirely different contexts, and not being able to resolve it by giving up either woman, tears him apart. Added onto this, is his sudden and severe epileptic fits, and the increasing demands of fame - the draining adulation of his fans. This strongly shaken emotional cocktail eventually leading to his unexpected suicide.

Were this not the true and tragic story of Ian Curtis, the former lead singer of Joy Division,one would,perhaps, not have given this tale much attention. The whiff of Rock 'n' Roll tragedy does, however, still sell his music, and now this movie, comes trailing a superlative soundtrack in its wake. People are still drawn to him because they want to understand his, and through him their own, nihilistic urges for oblivion. He topped himself, we did not, now why was that? Curtis, as portrayed here, comes across as dangerously immature and lacking in self-awareness, so self-controlled and divorced from the consequences of acting solely in response to his feelings. The intensity of his vision appearing to arise from too tight a self-containment of them. Feeling and passion burst forth in his lyrics and his singing. His fans got off on his darkly toned catharsis, pushing him, all the time, to show and give them more. His life demonstrates what Oprah Winfrey said about fame to be tragically true - “ If you come to fame not understanding who you are, it will define who you are”

The central performances from Sam Riley and Samantha Morton, though good and coherent, somehow fail to lift the energy level above 'steady as you go'. As a consequence it feels flat and emotionally uneventful – and this is a film about what leads up to a suicide, remember! The story lines development, is stretched out in terms of time, way beyond what the script can sustain. Long lingering shots of Riley nervously smoking a cigarette, slows the pace and focuses our attention, without providing any increase in a sense of feeling for his predicament. One gazes on dispassionately as he takes the rope that he'll hang himself by - off screen. At this point it becomes blatantly obvious how you've been held in neutral emotionally for most of the film. You don't care for him, at this most pivotal of moments. It's as though his nihilism was shot from the perspective of a rear view mirror, constantly moving away from, instead of towards, its subject matter.

Anton Corbjin, presents his first film as a cool, stylishly shot, black and white homage to the obsession of his earlier adult career. He gives it great observation, attention and period detail, the precise framing of each scene is sharp edged and immaculately composed. On a cinematic level it is an impressive debut. His eye is still that of a music photographer, his feeling for narrative flow is likewise too static, posed and drained of movement and colour. Intentionally or not, this film seems to be strangely alienated from any basic humane resonance. It demonstrates the facts, the events, the factors at play, all very well, but the confusion and turmoil of feelings going on behind them, stay as only muted murmurings. Curtis may indeed have been a repressed, emotionally blocked young man, but that translates on the screen, as him being a blank and empty vessel. After what felt much longer than its 122 minute running time, the reasoning of Curtis's internal world remained a closed, baffling mystery. This might well add to his enigmatic, if not mythic, cult status, but this detracted seriously from the films vitality and direction. Ian Curtis was an ordinary human being, containing dilemmas and choices we all could encounter. It doesn't help to paint him into a corner as a studied icon of morbidity or world weariness. His tragedy was that he lost his rational foothold, lost control, and the only way he felt he could take back the initiative in his life, was via self-destruction. There was a great film to be made here, buried beneath its style and poise, it somehow got alienated and lost too.

Oh, by the way, any crematorium that allowed bilious black smoke to be emitted from its chimney, as is shown at the end of the movie as the song 'Atmosphere' plays, would be either closed down, subjected to huge financial penalties, or prosecuted.

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