Film review: Life – a snapshot of Hollywood legend James Dean

Melissa York
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Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson as James Dean and Dennis Stock.

Cert 15 | ★★★★☆

If you paid to see a biopic, you used to get your money’s worth. But it seems three-hour cradle-to-grave-athons are fast becoming a thing of the past. These days, one defining moment is plucked from a life and examined from all angles to determine what maketh the man.

It must have been difficult to pick that moment for 50s movie star James Dean. He had many things in abundance – looks, talent, sexual partners – but one thing he didn’t have a lot of was life. Tragically, he died in a car accident at the age of 24 after having only starred in three films.
Fortunately, Anton Corbijn – who’s got form with 2007 Ian Curtis biopic Control – chose a fascinating pocket of his existence when he was on the cusp of fame. Life begins weeks before the premiere of his first major motion picture, East of Eden, and charts how the notoriously prickly actor dealt with his last moments of anonymity.
Watching from the wings is Dennis Stock, an up-and-coming photographer from New York forced to run around after Hollywood actors to build up his portfolio. Once Stock spots Dean on assignment for Life magazine, he sees more than an interesting subject, he sees a kindred spirit. Both are slightly pretentious young artists, looking for a way to make a living from their craft without having to resort to becoming a “red carpet guerilla” or act in “monster movies.”
To avoid his publicity commitments, Dean drags Stock to his family’s farm in Indiana and the resulting images made him an instant cultural icon for disaffected youth. Considering he’s playing the poster boy for rebellious, adolescent angst, Dane DeHaan is surprisingly likeable in the part despite his cliff of a quiff and artsy cigarette waving. DeHaan’s Dean is self-possessed in his awkwardness as he fiddles with his tortoiseshell glasses and giggles at his own jokes.
Robert Pattinson’s Stock is his self-consciously brooding opposite. As his character develops, it’s clear he has a real rapport with DeHaan and every moment they’re not on screen together feels like dead time.
At its core, Life is basically a bromance, which makes the film’s silence on Dean’s sexuality seem like a missed opportunity. It refrains from depicting his death, too, but this time it’s a welcome omission. In Life as in life, the viewer is left with only Stock’s chilling snapshots into the mind of one of Hollywood’s greatest enigmas.

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