Firstly I should say that the photography is simply sumptuous, as one would expect. The cast is solid (am I the only Samantha Morton fan out there?), and there are some excellent musical performances too. Thankfully there is no attempt to out-do Steve Coogan's near-perfect Tony Wilson from 24 Hour Party People - here the Factory boss is played pretty straightly by Craig Parkinson, leaving the comic relief to be provided by Joy Division, and later New Order manager Rob Gretton, played by Toby Kebbell.
A film about a man who commits suicide must have its light moments, yet there can be no discussion of mental illness, the pressures of success and fame, and suicide with out some exploration of the internal torments which go alongside. Frustratingly, it feels like Corbijn is merely touching from a distance here (to quote the title of Deborah Curtis' book, on which the film is based). His direction is prosaic and remote, rather than conceptual and intimate; we as an audience never really get an insight into the workings of this troubled mind. There is no real exploration of a troubled childhood or of the exploration of drugs (prescribed and un-prescribed) or the fascination with altering perceptions and experience. Similarly there is little or no insight into the genius of the lyricist and performer, or how he was driven and inspired (save for one cursory nod to some early Wordsworth reading and Bowie listening)
Sam Riley's Curtis comes across as almost too perfect to be truly convincing as a tortured soul. Curtis was a deeply awkward character - an anti-pinup, if you will - but Riley comes across as somewhat cherubic.The lack of emotional insight and character development means that the audience finds it hard to relate to the the spasmodic on-stage performances (there was laughter at the screening I was at). Corbijn fails to make the psychological link between the singer's state of mind and the expression of it through performance, and eventually his downward spiral into depression.
Similarly, we find it hard to truly understand the reasons behind the ultimate, final act. Suicide, and the reasons behind it, must surely be one of the most difficult things to portray through any medium, but Corbijn's withdrawn viewpoint gives us little insight. Instead of a picture of a man torn apart by mental instability, drugs, his own fame, genius, the women he loved and his inability to deal with these issues, we are left with a somewhat puzzling portrait of a slightly-strange-and-troubled-but-nice kid who had it all and threw it away.
I'd highly recommend Deborah Curtis' book, "Touching From A Distance", to get a far more rounded view of one of music's most interesting characters.