3.5 stars
James Dean only made three films. Having caught the world's attention in East Of Eden (1955), he set the world alight in Rebel Without A Cause (1955). But before it, and his next film Giant (1956) were released, the 24 year old Dean was dead.
Yet three features were enough to turn the fledgling actor into Hollywood legend. He epitomised teenage angst and, in fast changing times, he became a rock for the uncertain to cling to. Helping craft that legend were the iconic photos of Dennis Stock. That unforgettable image of Dean hunched against cold rain in Times Square? That's his, one of a series published by Life magazine when Eden was released. Shooting that series, and revealing the relationship which formed between insistent photographer and reluctant subject, is the backbone of Anton Corbijn's intriguing film.

He's a serious person's serious director, The American (2010) and notably A Most Wanted Man (2014) attest to that. Likewise Control (2007) which followed a similarly angsty teenage icon in Joy Division's Ian Curtis (who, coincidentally, died aged 24 as well). Here Corbijn also gets to invest in something much closer to his own creative heart, having cut his teeth as a still photographer for NME in the early 1980's. Accordingly there is a palpable resonance in the film's exploration of Stock as an emerging freelancer and his ability to see the unusual in Dean, then capture it for the world.

This is Life's narrative arc – Stock (Robert Pattinson – The Rover) assigns himself to a coy Dean (Dane DeHaan – Kill Your Darlings) and takes a bunch of photos. Questions immediately arise about the wariness of these young men - are they flirting with each other? Possibly, but it's 1955 and the controlling force of Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley - ) is not going to let anything interfere with his movies. Besides, it's 1955, and Dean has a girlfriend. Yet as their professional relationship grows, so too their personal one which, over time allows Stock to visit the family farm, spend time with the actor, and take those iconic photos.

Pattinson is a good match for the hungry yet guarded Stock, a man desperate to make a name for himself but wary of smothering his subject in the process. However it's the film's other lead, DeHaan, who owns the film; a little because he's playing Dean, a lot because his is an impressively lithe performance. There's an intangible quality to his interpretation of Dean which speaks to the elusive actor without simply being evasive.

Wed this to Corbijn's decisive, often haunting visual style, and Life should make for a truly fascinating character portrait. Often it is, yet something is lost in the story-telling. Neither Stock nor Dean had, nor could have had, any understanding of the mythology they were building. Consequently all those flirty, angsty, elusive and haunting moments add to little more than a portrait of a photoshoot. The legacy of that time is where the excitement lies, and Life isn't that story.

Corbjin and screenwriter Luke Davis (Candy) seems reluctant to break through those photos and show us what was there, to show us the life behind the myth. Maybe there wasn't all that much. After all, Dean was only 24 and only made three films - what could there be to say about a likeable farm boy? That disappointment aside, Corbijn's mouth-watering photography makes for an eye-catching experience given heft by they always interesting presence of DeHaan and Pattinson.


Previewed at the Paramount Theatre, Sydney, on 28 August 2015

Robert Pattinson
Dane DeHaan
Joel Edgerton
Ben Kingsley

Anton Corbijn

Luke Davis



111 minutes

September 10, 2015
Life (2015) on IMDb
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