Considering we’re living vicariously through Robert Pattinson’s Dennis Stock in Anton Corbijn’s ambitious biographical drama Life, we rely on our protagonist earning the trust of Hollywood icon and star James Dean, to be granted the fortune of getting beneath the surface of his subject, to allow the audience to do so themselves. What transpires is an absorbing insight into the life of one of the industry’s mot renowned, and elusive stars.
To begin with, Jimmy Dean, played by an alluring Dane DaHaan, is somewhat difficult to connect with, at arms length with the media, and reluctant for Stock to complete his photo-essay on the rising star for Life Magazine. However with his eyes set on the lead role in Rebel Without a Cause, Dean will do all he can to impress studio execute Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley), and he knows that this project could be beneficial to his career. So the pair travel to New York and on to Indiana, as Stock hopes to find the human behind the movie star, and properly introduce the world to one of the most exciting, young talents in the business.
In the early stages, you fear that Life will be a biopic that treats its subject as something of a caricature, based on a well-known impression of Dean and the preconceptions we already have, rather than the genuine person, and who he was outside of the public eye – just as Ava DuVernay achieved in Selma. Thankfully however, it becomes apparent that it’s only the Dean we first meet who is the movie star – as that’s the only version of himself he was allowing Stock to see. However as he grows comfortable around his new associate, it’s not only the photographer who benefits, but the audience. It’s why the film works – because we’re taking a detached, unbiased perspective, as we, much like Stock, peer in from the outside, we become the voyeur.
Given the undeniable charm and charisma of Pattinson, there was always the fear that he would steal the show from his counterpart, and be perceived as the star. However such is his understated, subtle turn, it allows DeHaan to take on that very role, which, given he’s playing James Dean, simply has to be the case. The latter’s depiction is impressive too, as it’s no mean feat embodying and portraying an actor who had such an immanent presence and aura, but he triumphs in the role – a role many others have tried their hand at, and failed miserably. It’s not only the actors who deserve recognition either, as Corbijn has done justice to this era, a time we romanticise over, and he displays 1950s America authentically, enriched by an affectionate sense of nostalgia.
The filmmaker was also a photographer himself too, and ensures the audience can appreciate this vocation as a true craft that requires skill and talent, with a commitment for detail and beauty. Though effectively a part of the paparazzi, this feature pre-dates the current climate, where such a profession has been tainted by those who lurk outside people’s houses, or strive to take an up-skirt shot on the red carpet. There’s an assumption nowadays that anybody can be a photographer, given we all have the means to do so on our smart phones, but this emphasises the fact it’s not easy to get it right.
There’s also an intriguing take on the relationship between talent and the press, which remains forever pertinent, though it’s fair to say that not quite so many cigarettes are smoked these days. Because in this film there are so many hanging delicately out of the corner of our protagonist’s mouths, that when you leave the cinema you can almost smell it on your clothes. Guess you can put this one down to being something of an immersive experience.