About one-third of the way through the Ian Curtis biopic Control, I was beginning to get a little confused about why it wasn't about Ian Curtis per se: it seemed instead to be a story about a fairly anonymous kid who got in over his head, like a lot of kids do. By the time the film was over, I realised that was entirely the point.

Curtis's life story can be sketched out quickly, because there wasn't a lot of it: born in 1956, married at 19, joined a band in 1976, started playing in 1977, changed the band's name to Joy Division in early '78, started recording in late '78, diagnosed with epilepsy, released a couple albums, hung himself in his kitchen in May, 1980. His was a sad and quiet life of virtually no distinction (like so many if their contemporaries, Joy Division only gained recognition after they had ceased to exist) and constant personal and romantic suffering.

The formula that most musical biopics follow is as rigid as kabuki theater: the artist as a young person to express him or herself and be loved, an early period of fame is followed by a middle period of debauchery and loss, and in the end he or she emerges from the depths of whatever substance he or she was abusing and stands victorious at the dawn of a new age of artistic triumph. There's obviously no way to force Curtis's life into that formula, and if Control did nothing else to make me love it, just being so very different from everything else around it would be enough.

However that is not the only thing it does: in fact, it is one of the finest character studies I have seen all year, in addition to having gorgeous high-contrast black and white cinematography that makes it one of the most visually exciting films of the year. All of which ought to make it one of the very best films of the year overall, but let's not get too excited.

The use of monochrome - and that's anamorphic wide monochrome, no less - is a bit eyebrow-raising on the face of it, and director Anton Corbijn (a decades-old music video vet on his first feature) doesn't really help explain matters when he simply posits that Joy Division could only exist in black-and-white. Except that, damned if he isn't right: the film's look is at once both dreamy and bleak, and while it is stripped of professional gloss it's still somehow shiny. All of which are very much true of the Manchester punk scene c. 1978 that Joy Division helped define. So maybe this is, per the director, the "natural palette" for this story. At any rate, the excellent work by Martin Ruhe (a German cinematographer whose I've never previously heard of, let alone seen) is breathtaking all on its own, full of sharp shadows and omnipresent cigarette smoke, and much worth seeking out on the big screen.

On the non-technical side of things, an extraordinary cast has been brought together for the film: particularly relative newcomer Sam Riley as Curtis, looking like the singer's twin and carrying the great weight of making the depression believable - and to a degree, understandable, as the script makes no real effort to explain Curtis's mood - in his dark eyes. It's one of the saddest lead performances in any recent biopic, and one that foregrounds the artist's humanity, rather than his art. As his wife, Debbie, Samantha Morton (who ought to seem too old for the role, but doesn't) is typically extraordinary, doing the "sad and betrayed" bit that she has done before, and many actresses before her, but doing it uncommonly well. Of the supporting cast, Joe Anderson as bassist Peter Hook brings the film its most sardonic humor, and Alexandra Maria Lara, as Curtis's mistress Annik Honoré its tragic eroticism. Craig Parkinson, who might otherwise be a stand-out, suffers for playing Tony Wilson, a figure already perfected by Steve Coogan in 24 Hour Party People, and while the roles are essentially different, the earlier performance looms too large for any actor to overcome it.

Most of the film's swift two hours consist of hanging on and watching as life and things sweep Curtis and the band up. Corbijn does well to erase the passage of time, opening the film with a title announcing that it's 1973, and only tossing a few dates up here and there until the final card, reading "Ian Curtis died on May 18, 1980." While a true fan of the band* would probably know by heart what each event means (although some events have been shuffled or composited), the film as it stands seems to all take place in a rush, and the seven years of plot almost seem like they could take place in a single summer. In this way we get a sense of what Curtis perhaps felt during his brief time as a punk superstar, picked up and carried along by life without really knowing what was going on. At any rate, his death comes as almost a relief: it is our first solid anchor since the film began, and that too, is perhaps what Curtis might have felt. It's hard to get in the mind of a suicidal musician, but a confused boy? That's easy, and that's what makes Control so effective.