Edinburgh Diary / Control (Anton Corbijn)

I’m in Edinburgh for a week for a festival. I’ll try and mention one or two things that I’ve seen over the next few days.

First up yesterday (Sunday) was Free and Easy at the Stand, free improv comedy with long time regulars Stewart Murphy and Gary Dobson. I enjoy the inane silliness of it all and the surreal logic warps that the duo achieve. Like all improv, though, it’s uneven. Today there were a few too many knob gags for it to be considered one of their better shows.

The Laughing Horse are doing a number of free comedy shows at the Smirnoff Underbelly on Cowgate. The lunchtime show features a number of up and coming comics doing seven minute spots. None of the five on yesterday rocked my world, but none were stare-at-the-floor bad either. I wrote their names down on a bit of paper but I’ve lost it.

The evening was music related. Deaf Shepherd were playing the third off three nights at the Acoustic Music Centre at St. Bride’s on Orwell Road. Normally a six piece, the group were trimmed to a quitet due to the illness of one of the two fiddle players. Even so, they delivered a thrilling set of turbocharged traditional Scottish music with Burns ballads interspersed with some fiery reels and jigs.

Good though that was, the real highlight of the day for me was the second UK screening of Anton Corbijn’s film Control – a biopic about the short life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis. The film is shot in the kind of steely monochrome that Corbijn is famous for in his photography. Considering the subject matter, there are quite a few laugh out loud moments – particularly from potty-mouthed Rob Gretton and Tony Wilson (played by Toby Kebbell and Craig Parkinson respectively). But it has to be said that these get progressively fewer as the film spirals down to its dark conclusion. The performances are uniformly excellent – particularly Sam Riley as Curtis and Samantha Morton as his wife Debbie. There are certain scenes when Riley looks uncannily like the singer which adds to the atmosphere of realism that pervades the movie.

On a musical level, the live footage and rehearsal scenes are superb. Originally the screen band were to mime to Joy Division backing tracks, with Riley singing live over the top, but they persuaded Corbijn to allow them to play the music themselves. The result is a slightly ragged, but undenyingly powerful sound which feels much more realistic than it would otherwise have done. Apparently James Anthony Pearson, who plays Barney Sumner, learned guitar from scratch for his role in only a fortnight (which just shows you had technically good Barney was!). Although the film is specifically not about the band, but about the singer and his personal demons, if the music hadn’t have been believable it would have seriously undermined the whole movie. In fact, I almost clapped at the end of one song, forgetting where I was for a minute.

Curtis does come out looking like a bit of a dick. His emotional manipulation of both his wife and mistress Annik Honore, like his inability to communicate on a more than superficial level with either, reveals an emotional immaturity. It has to be said, though, the progressive worsening of his epilepsy, and the consequent medication that was constantly pumped into him can’t have helped his mental state.

Annik Honore appears in a more sympathetic light than could be reasonably expected since the film was based on Debbie Curtis’ book. Both women were essentially victims of a screwed-up and frightened boy who was way out of his depth dealing with marriage, fatherhood, love, fame and illness. In the end, he just didn’t have the strength.

Control is a film I’d looked forward to, but was kind of nervous about too. I was a bit of a Joy Division obsessive in my teenaged years, so this was quite personal material to me. I needn’t have worried. The film is distinctly un-Hollywood. It is by turns bleak and funny, but pulls no punches and offers no emotional compromises. The audience filed out in near silence afterwards in an atmosphere of shell-shock. A masterpiece of movie-making, and one I thoroughly recommend that everyone sees, whether they’re into Joy Division or not, when it gets a general release in October.

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