Life, a respectably modest and balanced dual biopic is based on the friendship between Time Magazine photographer Dennis Stock and 50’s Hollywood celebrity James Dean. Under the sure hand of the marvellous director Anton Corbijn (Control, The American, A Most Wanted Man), this is a touching snapshot of time, and remains a very focused study of the psyche of these two very different young men – a reluctant, but effortlessly charismatic star, and an ambitious but battling artist – who learn from one another and grow as a result of their unlikely friendship. Corbijn never goes out of his way to draw much attention to the big dramatic developments, or where each recognisable snap of Dean took place, he simply observes these men as they bond, tell stories and try to grow as both artists and men.
Tragically, it would only be one that would go on to have a long, healthy career. The other, with just three film roles under his belt, would become one of Hollywood’s most iconic figures. Life offers plenty to contemplate on and the thoughtful and deliberate pacing and rejection of conventional true-life biopic tropes make it immediately recommendable. I left with an aching sadness realising that the world had lost a bona fide talent far too early, but privileged to have been given this generous insight into how he might have thought, what he cherished and how he viewed his growing fame.
Stock (Robert Pattinson), at the time working for Magnum Photos Agency, pitches an idea to his boss after meeting Dean (Dane Dehaan) at a party in Los Angeles. Dean has just finished shooting the latest Elia Kazan film, East of Eden, and is waiting to hear whether he is to be offered the lead role in Rebel Without a Cause, and Stock is convinced that he will become the next big thing. He wants to bust both of their careers open with a shoot for Life Magazine. Morris is not convinced that anyone is going to care about Dean, but Stock is desperate for a big job that doesn’t involve set visits and publicity photography, and pushes for the assignment. In the months leading up to the East of Eden première, Stock tries to convince Dean to commit to the shoot, but the star’s reluctance was not exclusive to Stock’s project, but, much to Jack Warner’s chagrin, to all levels of publicity for East of Eden. As their friendship develops Stock decides to accompany Dean on a lie-low trip to Indiana to visit Dean’s family in the hope that he will finally open up and allow himself to be photographed.
Corbijn’s low-key approach to this story means that he isn’t really all that interested in Dean’s iconic image – the story is set in the period between his two famous lead roles. He wasn’t yet the pop icon he would become. Ultimately, it was Stock’s photographs that would accelerate the global fame-turned-legacy following his tragic death just a few months later. This is the story of a 24-year-old who didn’t want to play the Hollywood game. He confesses on several occasions that he wants to lose himself in his roles, but not have to play a role off camera. He wants to be himself, and Warner Bros weren’t too happy about that.
Pattinson, like his Twilight co-star Kristen Stewart, has left behind that toxic franchise and has been turning in some terrific performances. He’s very solid again here and manages to keep his creepy desperation in check, but also reveals a lot of suppressed pain. Forced to become a man early – he’s divorced with a young child, and barely mid-20’s – he is one failed assignment away from being a complete screw-up. Dehaan’s performance is compelling – and the fact that he’s not a complete look-alike is important here – driven by unusual delivery, subtle tics and sly nuances that don’t resemble ‘impersonation’. His Dean is an interesting person to spend time with – a soft heart who keeps his explosive talent deep down within, saving it for when he steps onto the set.
Australian novelist and screenwriter Luke Davies (Candy) wrote the clever screenplay for the film and Owen Pallett (Oscar-nominated for Her) provided the sparse but effective musical score. Charlotte Bruss Christensen’s elegant lensing gives us an authentic window into this period, and beautifully captures the photogenic stars at their most vulnerable with soft lighting. Christensen has also worked frequently with Thomas Vinterberg, including his last two features The Hunt and Far From The Madding Crowd.
Corbijn’s last three works have been individually brilliant, and Life is further proof that he is a very reliable filmmaker. This film is so interesting, and in less confident hands would have been wildly misjudged – and made Dean into either a heart-throb or a bad boy. This film portrays him as a complex, soulful young man with a lot of natural talent, but someone who didn’t fit into the suffocating world of Hollywood. Stock was there to capture him at his most relaxed in front of the camera, and these images offer a unique and I expect misunderstood insight into James Dean the man.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: Anton Corbijn
Writer(s): Luke Davies (Screenplay)
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Dane Dehaan, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley
Runtime: 111 minutes
Release date(s): Australia: September 10, 2015