Reviewed by Robert Metcalf

Joy Division is a promising debut feature from British director Reg Traviss; a mixture of sixties spy story and the brutal recreation of the Second World War’s Eastern Front, with the narrative shifting between the two. These settings are so different, and the central character so changed, that the two strands of the narrative at times feel like two separate films.

The film’s duality can be a little bewildering at times and as a result it is hard to develop an affinity with the protagonist Thomas Wagner. The teenage Wagner and the adult version are played by different actors, and Wagner senior shows no trace of a German accent. However, the distance between the two does serve a purpose in illustrating the very different roles a person may fulfil in the course of a lifetime, particularly a person who lives in “interesting times”. Wagner’s dislocation would have been common to many of the displaced people who were left without family or nation in the wake of the Second World War.

Joy Division is a story about how, by necessity, people cope in a rapidly changing world. In his voiceover, Wagner describes his journey as “the private war of the individual”. It is an appropriate phrase, as it touches on both the setting of the film – during wars both hot and cold – and Wagner’s essential aloneness.

We meet Wagner as a fourteen year-old in wartime Germany, embarking on his “real” life – courting girlfriend Melanie, playing football and spending time with his family. The war is a noisy and ominous presence, but at least in his childhood environment, Wagner has context and meaning. The sombre interiors of forties houses are well drawn, and the depiction of a family doing its best to get by in a country at war rings true. The brutality of the war then intrudes in scenes that are not for the squeamish, and it becomes clear that no civilian on the Eastern Front could remain untouched by the Soviet advance. Wagner’s solitary course through post-war Europe begins.

Wagner next appears as a Soviet spy in swinging sixties London. The bright sixties detail is a marked contrast to the wartime scenes, and at times borders on parody. The houses have gaudy patterned wallpaper, early sixties music fills the soundtrack and even the composition of the shots seems reminiscent of sixties films. One almost expects Austin Powers to leap out of a red London phone booth at an opportune moment.

Joy Division is an engaging hour and three quarters, which leaves its audience with ideas to ponder. It contains impressively realised scenes of the Eastern Front alongside sixties cliché, yet ultimately it holds something back, just as its protagonist fails to leave a lasting impression on his audience. On the strength of this debut however, it will certainly be worth investigating Reg Traviss’ future work.