Movie Review: Life
For a director who has often been the subject of style over substance charges, James Dean was an interesting choice of protagonist for Anton Corbijn’s latest biopic. A true icon but also seen as one of the first true celebratories (in the most modern sense of the word), is there really anything more to Dean than a pretty face and a trio of half-decent films?
Having charted the turbulent career of Manchester post-punk band Joy Division in 2007’s Control and tried his hand at action with the equally attractive The American, Corbjin was clearly going for a more personal subject not just with Dean but the films other central character, photographer Dennis Stock.
As a photographer himself, Corbijn looks to get to get to grips with the relationship between photographer as artist with the artistic subject. In Life, Dennis Stock and James Dean have lots in common; both awkward characters, hemmed in in different ways by their chosen paths and struggling to create artistic pieces of worth in an increasingly shallow culture.
The first half of Life is a slightly uncomfortable watch. Dane Hehaan’s mannered portrayal takes some getting used to as he obviously went to pains to achieve Dean’s high pitched mumble but ultimately, the choice of the relatively unknown actor to play the role was an inspired one. A scene on a train in which Dean is taking Stock back to his Indiana home and talking about his roots is a real turning point in the film and manages to get to the core of Dean’s troubled character. Before that the tortured genius act seems too affected.
As is expected of Corbijn, the film is shot beautiful with 1950s New York looking every inch as romantic as you’d hope and the rural scenery of Indiana in the snow are truly captivating. But, it’s the exploration of the lives of the two lead characters which is the most engaging aspect of the film. Stock is a rising star in the photography industry with some shoots with Life magazine under his belt but still struggling to make ends meet with less fulfilling assignments. Dean too is at the beginning of his career with the promise of his mega stardom threatening to put shackles on his free spirit and artistic ambition. Special mention has to go to Ben Kingsley whose small role as the dastardly Jack Warner (of Warner Bros, not the equally dastardly former FIFA official) is pitch perfect. Dean and Stock strike up a friendship as they both see something in each other as artists and presumably, a loneliness as they embark on two relatively isolating careers.
The film can be seen as an attempt to scratch beneath a familiar surface in James Dean but is also a love letter to the tenacity of a much respected photographer. Corbijn certainly succeeds in the former but James Pattinson as Stock perhaps lacks some depth. However, a photographer’s job is to uncover the depth of the subject and both Stock and Corbijn have achieved this and the results are there in their bodies of work.
Life is on at Picturehouse at FACT now.