By Maisie De-Pulford
September 30th 2015 marked fifty years since James Dean died in an untimely car crash, 24 years of age and on the cusp of super-stardom. In tribute to such an anniversary it is obvious that a biopic of the young actor should and would be made, but what director Anton Corbijn offers with his new film Life is something much more interesting and deconstructive than the expected eulogy.
For starters this film has two leads and not one. Whilst the star is obviously Dean himself, played by the understated but brilliant Dane Dehaan, he shares the screen equally with the more obviously famous Robert Pattinson and his role of Dennis Stock – the Magnum photographer who’s shots for Life magazine in 1955 epitomized James as the cool leader of a new generation. What emerges is both a battle and a friendship between two very different actors and two very different characters, all of whom ultimately transpire to be just artists in pursuit of their career.
Stock’s legendary images form the basis for this snapshot biopic that spans just a few days in the lives of the offbeat pair. In the opening scene we see Dennis and Dean meet in the back garden of a showbiz party and from then on we are witness to the photographer’s pursuit. Sure that he is on to the next best thing and about to make his break, Stock is relentless in fulfilling his assignment. What follows are the recreations of the moments that were to forever immortalize James as an icon. We see the barbershop and the jazz bar where the young actor famously slumps on the table, we see Times Square (which, might I add, is breathtakingly produced in CGI) with James bracing against the rain, and we follow all the way to Dean’s home and family, a farm in Indiana. Yet what really transpires is the staged and often reluctant nature of these images and how we have built an idol around them – something that director Corbijn knows a lot about from his days of photographing Joy Division.
As the subject of all this imagery and idolatry, Dehaan is fascinating as Dean. He trained for three months physically building the right stature and learning to move in the way he did. Working with a speech coach he listened to rare recordings of Dean at home, trying to assimilate his voice and to discover the real man behind the pictures. It must be said that he is certainly missing a ruggedness and magnetism that Dean evokes, but what Dehaan gives on screen is a naturalness that is – for want of another word – enchanting. His Dean is simultaneously at ease with life and deeply troubled by the world around him. He is warm, lively, and sure of who he is, but he is also nervous and difficult. It is a beguiling and human likeness of an idol that sneaks up on you and ultimately convinces you to suspend your disbelief.
Pattinson, on the other hand, is the complete opposite. Stock is cold and almost schizophrenic in behavior, one moment impassioned and driven, the next drained of life and painfully awkward. It is hard to see how a friendship between two such opposing natures could have worked, and I am left trying to decipher whether Pattinson’s performance is in fact so excellently executed that what we witness is truly a portrayal of genuinely unfeeling and self absorbed man, or whether, if unintentionally and sadly, he has actually just fallen a bit flat.
Regardless of the highs and lows of the acting, the re-creation of each photographic scene is beautifully and meticulously constructed right down to the last detail. They are brought to life and into action in a way that can only be described as pure movie magic. However, this heavy photographic focus has also won Life mixed reviews and many have been quick to call its slow pace and low-key drama as ironically lifeless. But for me – perhaps aside from Pattinson – these critics have slightly missed the point. The nature of the film is by structure and intent more akin to the stills of a photo-shoot than the standard momentum of a conventional movie narrative. The whole idea is to reveal the image making process behind the legend. For instance, the photograph taken in Times Square is an iconic snapshot that has shaped the memory of Dean in the public eye. Yet what Life offers is the ordinary and contrived nature of such infamy. It delivers us a much more uncertain, awkward, and human insight into the possible reality behind these photographs and asks questions about who is the subject and who is the artist. Who is doing who the favour here and what is sacrificed on the road to fame?
There are times when you want to knock the camera right out of the hands of Pattinson’s Stock. To stop him from stealing the real moments away from the more emotional and warmer Dean, especially as we become increasingly aware that there won’t be too many left for him to live. But when the credits roll up and Stock’s original images flash past, you can’t help but feel almost grateful and in awe of this photography; it held the power to shape a whole cultural shift, to create an icon and to document a fleeting life.
Less idol making and more idol breaking, this is a film that attempts to do something new with its source material. Although it may lack the thrill factor one might hope to find in connection with James Dean, there is something undeniably intriguing about the mix of human awkwardness and ambition in Corbijn’s film that shouldn’t be missed. After all, two hours spent watching Dehaan and Pattinson is no a bad thing.