Is Life the film that Anton Corbijn was born to make? On paper it would appear so: he made his name as a photographer during the 1970s and 1980s before recently turning his hand to directing, and these two worlds collide in his latest work, which examines a brief period in the mid-1950s when the publicity snapper Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) met and worked with the actor James Dean (Dane DeHaan). Life is a low-key account of their brief friendship and artistic collaboration, and it finds both men at a crossroads during the early stages of their respective careers. Dean’s appearance in East Of Eden is about to catapult him into superstardom, and at the beginning of this film he’s also lobbying for the lead role in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause. However, it quickly becomes apparent that certain things are expected of him if he is to become a major Hollywood star, which are established through his brief interactions with Ben Kingsley’s imposing and demanding Jack Warner. He’ll get his chance, according to Warner, but it’s clear that he has to play the publicity game beforehand.
Given that we know the actor’s life was cut short by a car accident, everything that we see the character do here seems tinged with sadness, whether that’s dancing wildly in a bar with a young Eartha Kitt (Kelly McCreary) or relaxing and visiting family in Indiana with Stock in tow (which, the end credits remind us, was his last trip home). Yet DeHaan plays Dean as a man with understandably few cares in the world, as sure that success is on the way as he is about his own prettiness and innate coolness. It’s Pattinson’s Stock who wrestles with the greater problems here, frustrated by Magnum’s insistence on keeping him active as a publicity photographer rather than allowing or paying for him to produce personal work on assignment abroad. He’s also haunted by his decision to leave his ex-partner and young son back in New York, and his relationship with both is distant in both senses of the word.
Of the two Dean may be the more famous, but Corbijn certainly knows what makes photographers tick, and he has photographed his own fair share of actors over the years, before he began directing them. The artistic collboration here, in which Stock photographs Dean on the cold, windy, rainy streets of New York City and on the family farm in Indiana, benefitted both men equally; in real life Dean ‘performed’ for Stock, much in the same way he would perform for Elia Kazan or go on to perform for Nicholas Ray, and the photographs that resulted from the sessions defined Stock’s career and helped to establish Dean as a teen icon. The question really is whether this meeting of minds is interesting enough to merit the dedication of an entire feature length film. I would say it is, just about, but that may be due to my own interest in photography rather than any fascination created by Luke Davies’ screenplay or even the performances of the actors.
Equal attention is paid to both of the men, but the writer and the director are keen to show that neither version of Stock or Dean seen here is defined solely by their choice of career; considering Stock shot constantly throughout the 1950s we rarely see Pattinson holding a camera viewfinder up to his eye, while we don’t actually see DeHaan’s Dean acting in front of a (movie) camera at all. His performance as an idol on the cusp of idolatry has consistency but he doesn’t quite capture the star’s extreme levels of charisma; Robert Pattinson is good, but in truth both seem a little bit lightweight next to the supporting turns by Kingsley and Joel Edgerton, who plays Magnum picture editor John G. Morris. Unfortunately Life stutters along without ever really hitting its stride, and although the film looks as good as some of Corbijn’s previous work it’s odd that it feels curiously uninterested in the actual practice of photography, save for some occasional snapping by one of its leads. Still, it’s rich in ’50s atmosphere, though, the acting is decent and there are lots of references to figures within the photography and entertainment industries to look out for, if you’re that way inclined.
Directed by: Anton Corbijn.
Written by: Luke Davies.
Starring: Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Joel Edgerton, Ben Kingsley, Alessandra Mastronardi.
Cinematography: Charlotte Bruus Christensen.
Editing: Nick Fenton.
Music: Owen Pallett.
Running Time: 111 minutes.