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USA/Canada/Australia 2015
Directed by
Anton Corbijn
111 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Chris Thompson
2 stars

Life (2015)

Synopsis: In 1955, 26 year old freelance photographer, Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), convinces his agent,  John Morris (Joel Edgerton) at Magnum Photos Agency to get him an assignment for Life Magazine to shoot a photo essay on an unknown 24 year old actor, James Dean (Dane DeHaan). The two strike up a friendship as Stock follows Dean from Los Angeles to New York and then to the farm in Indiana where Dean grew up.

Dennis Stock’s iconic photos were taken in the period between the completion of Dean’s first film, East of Eden and the beginning of work on his penultimate performance in Rebel Without A Cause, just months before his tragic death. It’s hard to imagine the mythology around James Dean without that now instantly recognisable image of him alone, hands thrust into his dark overcoat, shoulders shrugged against the cold, cigarette at an angle, set against a grey sky and reflected in the wet pavement of Times Square. It’s a key moment in this biopic about the days before Dean became famous and then, ultimately, infamous, but it’s a strangely remote moment as well. Perhaps it’s because the image is so well known that there is no surprise for us when it eventuates on screen. Or perhaps it’s because the whole film seems to lack the kind of emotional layering that it needed to bring the relationship between its two central characters to life.

Anton Corbijn is known for his intense studies of complex characters and difficult relationships in films like The American (2009) and A Most Wanted Man (2014).  Here though, the complexity of character and relationship seem to elude him. Partly it’s due to DeHaan’s highly mannered portrayal of Dean. He certainly looks the part, as do several other actors playing recognisable roles such as Natalie Wood (Lauren Gallagher),Elia Kazan (Michael Therriault), Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary) or Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley).  But whilst the others get away with it in their ‘walk-on’ roles, DeHaan needed to find a deeper level of character for us to connect to Dean. Certainly, there seems to be a lot going on internally for him, but very little translates onto the screen and the vocal choice of playing him as a whiny mumbler wears thin very quickly. This remoteness may give us a good sense of Dean as a loner, but doesn’t offer anything to our understanding of why this relationship between he and Stock developed.  For the most part we’re left with two good actors working hard on their own thing but failing to connect with each other, and without that connection we struggle to understand how it was that Stock managed to capture such insightful images of the troubled young actor.

It’s a shame, because Luke Davies’ first screenplay since Candy (2005) has plenty of material that could have had us riveted by these two enigmatic characters. What we get, though, is a film that’s strong on looks and mood and light on characterisation and depth of storytelling. The photos themselves, which are intercut into the credit roll, are warm, personal and intensely human. The film, sadly, is not.

PS. In an odd little twist, DeHaan recently played Harry Osborn in The Amazing Spiderman 2, a role played in the Sam Raimi versions of Spiderman by James Franco who also played James Dean, much more successfully, in Mark Rydell’s 2001 made-for-TV movie, James Dean.




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