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September 22, 2015
It’s easy to see why Life appealed to legendary photographer-turned-film-director Anton Corbijn so much. The film revolves around an ambitious photographer’s attempts to capture the ineffable mystique of James Dean, a troubled soul who would tragically die before his time — just as joy Division’s frontman Ian Curtis did, the subject of Control, Corbijn’s 2007 feature film debut. However, whereas Control was a complete submersion into Curtis’ mind, Life is a far shallower experience, lacking much of the understanding Control was blessed with.
In an unfortunate parallel, just as Robert Pattinson’s Dennis Stock struggles to portray Dane DeHaan’s James Dean the way he wants to early on in the film, so too does Corbijn. Often, especially in the first two-thirds of the film, their relationship plays out like a teenage dating pursuit. Stock, the naïvely optimistic pursuer, chases and pesters the too cool for school James Dean, being dragged along on half-hearted promises which are rarely fulfilled.
During these ponderingly un-insightful minutes, the hope would be that James Dean’s charisma would carry the film, giving us a reason to understand why Stock is so doggish in his pursuit. But in Dane DeHaan’s hands, Dean too often comes across as a petulant teenager rather than a man of any great complexity, a boy who’d just seen Rebel Without A Cause and was trying to emulate him rather than embodying him. It’s only when Dean drags Stock from New York to his childhood home of Indiana where Life really kicks into gear, moving away from much of the youthful angst to focus on the man behind the glasses.
This is when both Corbijn and Stock begin to get a grasp on the icon. Dean is no longer vain and portentous, but a young man scared about how fame will change his life, shying away from the responsibility and attention his celebrity would bring him and seeking comfort in his past. Dane DeHaan responds accordingly. Twitchy and mumbling in front of the executives and the press, he’s engaging and warm when back at his secluded family farm, reading to his nephew and quite at ease with himself when signing autographs at a school prom.
If DeHaan is uneven, then Robert Pattinson is ploddingly steady as Dennis Stock. Armed with a handful of expressions and twitches, Pattinson employs them all whenever he can with little meaning or understanding behind the actions. His estranged wife and son feel like furnishing rather than anything defining about his character. Besides the self-loathing stares, Pattinson rarely scratches the surface of Stock, content to serve as the foil to the altogether more conflicted Dean.
While the film certainly finds it stride in the second half, there’s a feeling that the audience’s foreknowledge of Dean’s death hinders much of what Corbijn tries to do. Dean’s death hangs over every contemplation of the future, and there are times when it feels like Corbijn is playing too much up to this sentiment, fully aware that the audience knows what the future Dean is so wary of holds in store for him.
When Dean leaves his childhood home for what would be the final time, for instance, he’s gazing away into the distance where the clouds might as well be spelling “You’re never coming back here!” such was the lack of subtlety it was handled with.
It’s an unfortunate dishonesty embedded into the film which ultimately stops it from having any deeper impact than the snapshot it is.
At the end of the day, that’s all Life really is — a snapshot in time. Besides a brief mention of his mother, there’s little attention given to Dean’s life, and Corbijn ignores his ambiguous sexuality and claims of sexual abuse when he was young.
Just like the now iconic photo of Dean in Times Square, Life is a moody and evocative glimpse of the man, but is also unfortunately just as staged and shallow.
Life is released in UK cinemas on September 25th