This article is from 2007.
Samantha Morton relished the challenge of her latest role as the long suffering wife of troubled Joy Division singer Ian Curtis, finds Miles Fielder
Samantha Morton is in control. The critically lauded, hard working and in-demand British actress plays the long suffering wife of troubled singer of legendary Manchester band Joy Division in the Ian Curtis movie, Control. Fresh from winning the Best European Film award at Cannes in May, it receives its UK premiere at the EIFF this month.
In the film, 30-year-old Morton plays Deborah Curtis née Woodruff, a young Mancunian girl who met Curtis while they were both still at school and who married him and had a child with him when they were barely out of the education system in 1975. Morton is currently in America making Charlie Kaufman’s latest mind-bending movie, Synecdoche, New York, but will be in Edinburgh for Control’s gala premiere and an in person masterclass. As the film, which is based on Deborah Curtis’ autobiographical novel Touching From a Distance, makes clear, life was difficult enough for the young, virtually penniless parents. The growing success of Joy Division, however, was another source of pressure for its frontman. That, combined with Curtis’ increasing anxiety over his debilitating epilepsy, put a further strain of the marriage, which led to an affair with a young Belgian fan/journalist named Annik Honoré, the eventual separation of husband and wife and finally Curtis’ tragic suicide in 1980 at the age of 24.
Control, as the film’s director Anton Corbijn has said, is ‘a personal film, not a music film’, by which the celebrated Dutch photographer and music promo maker means it’s less about Joy Division and more focused on Curtis’ personal life and his relationship with his wife. It’s a striking-looking film, shot in panoramic widescreen and austere black and white, and it boasts an awesome sonic soundtrack of Joy Division songs, but at heart Control is a simple, boy-meets-girl love story that needs, and most certainly has, deeply affecting performances from its leading actors. In his first major film role, 27-year-old Macclesfield-born actor Sam Riley is a revelation as Ian Curtis. As for Morton, we’ve come to expect, and regularly been treated to, top-class performances from this actress with well-established credentials. Perhaps understandably, Riley was in awe of working with the far more experienced performer. Talking about filming, Riley said: ‘She was very professional and very helpful to me, and her performance in the film is excellent.’
Morton must surely have been able to identify with the film and her role in it. She grew up in a working class family on a council estate in Nottingham, and listened to post-punk New Wave music – including Joy Division – throughout the 1980s. She is herself a mother, to seven-year-old Esme, whom Morton co-parents with her ex-partner actor Charlie Creed-Miles (the two met while making The Last Yellow which also premiered at Edinburgh). And she’s just announced she’s pregnant again and due to have a second child in January, with the music promo director Harry Holm (son of thespian Ian) to whom she became engaged last year. All of that has, no doubt, fed into Morton’s utterly convincing turn as the loving, beleaguered northern lass Curtis, and it adds yet another jewel to her crown.
And so, exactly ten years since Morton landed her first leading role in a film, in Under the Skin, which won an award at the EIFF in 1997, she’s in control in more ways than one. After Control, and before Synecdoche, New York, Morton will be seen playing Mary, Queen of Scots in the highly anticipated sequel to Elizabeth, The Golden Age, and then as a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like in Harmony Korine’s offbeat Scotland-set comic drama Mister Lonely. These days, Morton’s working on both sides of the Atlantic, balancing prestige studio films with smaller, independent ones. ‘Acting and music,’ Morton said, ‘are self indulgent professions, and they are a luxury if you love what you do. I have a love/hate relationship with what I do. But then I think you only have one life and I am a vessel for stories to be told.’
Morton wasn’t always so in control of her career, however. After the critical success of Under the Skin announced the arrival of a new and formidable acting talent, the British press unearthed details of her upbringing and printed sleazy stories about the divorce of her parents when she was three years old and Sam’s subsequent years spent in foster care. The experience has made Morton cautious of the press ever since, which in turn resulted in her being labelled ‘difficult’. It was an unfair accusation but has been further fuelled by the fact that Morton is outspoken. Talking about her yet-to-be-released historical drama River Queen prior to filming, she said: ‘We really want Gary Oldman for a part in River Queen, but he won’t read anything we send him unless we offer him a million. How sad is that?’
In her defense Morton has noted: ‘I used to be, and still am, considered very difficult. But what is difficult? If I’m put in an uncomfortable environment, I become defensive.’ In person, Morton’s not difficult at all.
Two years after she made her big screen debut in Under the Skin, Morton went to America to make a film with Woody Allen, who directed her in Sweet and Lowdown to an Oscar nomination. Three years later, Morton received her second Oscar nomination, for In America.
She was turned down for a role in Love, Actually, which went to Keira Knightley, and another in Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, because, the story goes, the money men didn’t consider her pretty enough, and as a two-time Oscar-nominee she commanded too high a salary. Instead, Morton went her own way playing a junkie in Jesus’ Son, the titular Scots heroine in Morvern Callar, Myra Hindley in the TV drama Longford, choices which signalled greater professional achievements which will stand her in good stead for a long lasting career.
So Morton is in control of her career and her private life. ‘With publicity,’ she commented, ‘you have to retain a level of privacy. For me, work and my life shouldn’t be one and the same.’ That’s as it should be. Given, however, that Morton is coming to Edinburgh with a film about a couple of young people losing control of their lives, it’s also ironic.
Cineworld, 623 8030, 17 Aug, 7pm; 19 Aug, 9.40pm, both £7.95 (£5.50).