It takes a steely resolve to release a movie with as lofty a title as Life, and it’s nice that, contrary to expectation, this one has a hint of sardonicism. In rebuilding the flicker of friendship between a yet-to-explode James Dean (Dane DeHaan) and ailing Life Magazine photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson), it’s the kind of biopic that’s less beholden to historical details and free to serve up dollops of self-reflection on dreams and memories, much like director Anton Corbijn’s 2007 name-maker Control. Though its story and central performance doesn’t always engage to the extent it could, the inserting of 1950s photography is an interesting fusion of contemporary styles and vintage subject matter, and a more interesting biopic than we typically receive.
Dane DeHaan’s mimicking of a doomed legend makes it something of a shy cousin to 2013’s Kill Your Darlings, eschewing that film’s attempts at punchy sophistication for a soberer sense of time and place.1 Conversely, De Haan leaves Lucien Carr’s tragic persecution behind for a more bemused sensibility. His Dean isn’t overwhelmed by the world so much as doggedly out of step with it, which is a smart and subtle foreshadow for his eventual lightning strike. If only it happened as quickly. Because the narrative busies itself in its first thirty with digs at Golden Age star-making and Stock’s parallel quarter-life crisis, De Haan’s faltering rhythms dominate what small moments we have to get acquainted and become a hushed, honking imitation.
As he balances between reverence and spontaneity in exchanges with girlfriend Pier Angeli (Alessandra Mastronardi), Pattinson shuffles in from a darkroom as an audience proxy, and a damn fine one. His phone conversations with John Morris, played with brusque elegance by Joel Edgerton, embody every twenty-something that’s ever picked between rent cover and a proper meal; instantly a more contemporary portrayal than any of Kill Your Darlings’s needle drops muster. Then there’s his ex-wife and child back in New York, which only galvanises the sophistication and similarity with Dean by showing his hobbled detachment, culminating in one brilliantly left-field bit of gross-out humour. It’s a marvellous performance that even outshines an especially hammy Ben Kingsley, who puts on his Mandarin accent and umpteenth silly costume as hardass studio chief Jack Warner.
For a story defined by the interplay between private and public perception, Dean and Stock’s chemical bonding is remarkably free of crowds and geography. It’s most likely the result of a tight budget than a clear vision, but there is a perceptible alienation in the harsh lights and gaudy composites of the big city, which is wiped away as Stock impulsively joins Dean for his last homecoming in Indiana. DOP Charlotte Bruus Christensen, twice a Thomas Vinterberg collaborator, navigates the prescribed settings with handheld ease, and ably frames the intimate, sometimes volatile two-hander dynamics that the script trots through. Concurrently, editor Nick Fenton burrows into the central pair’s blindsided kinship with the same smart judgement he brought to the films of Clio Barnard and Richard Ayoade, remaining eclectic yet unshowy. With such talent at his call, Corbijn leads us through at a measured pace that wavers between understatement and feebleness, more the former as he hits the tarmac on the predestined conclusion.
What lights up the muddy, frustrated lives in Life is their juxtaposition with the piercing Hollywood spotlight. From a place where self-concepts are hand-printed in concrete, Corbijn ducks via Dean and Stock’s relationship into far less glamorous pockets. He doesn’t always stay subtle by contrast, sometimes staging conflicts through dialogue or relying on plinking jazz tunes to set the mood, but other times he finds a warmth reminiscent of his choice of opening image: the slow-lighting red bulb under which Stock develops the photos that made him and Dean known to the world. Life returns to that intimate glow often enough for its meeting of minds to feel admirably unvarnished.