At the start of 1955, James Dean was an unknown actor poised on the cliff edge of stardom. He'd made East of Eden but it hadn't been released yet, and Warner Brothers still weren't convinced he had the makings of a star.
Dean wasn't entirely convinced he wanted to become one, and was hiding out in New York when a determined young photographer called Dennis Stock finally got his hands on him. Stock too was on the verge of hitting the big time, and the series of photos he took of Dean would get published in Life magazine and grow ever more iconic with the passage of time.
One of them, which would later be titled 'Boulevard of Broken Dreams' and turned into a bestselling poster, showed Dean with shoulders hunched and sucking on a cigarette, walking towards the camera through a rainy Times Square. And in many ways Anton Corbijn's Life is the story of that photo, and of the symbiotic and uneasy relationship between subject and snapper that led to it.
Though he could easily have been cast as Dean, Twilight dreamboat Robert Pattinson is Dennis Stock, a gloomy and not especially likeable young photographer who is determined to make his name by getting a splash photo story in Life, and has moved to Hollywood in search of the big story.
He's left behind a wife and young son, and seems terrified by the constrictions of marriage and parenthood. All he has is his work, and that isn't going too well either, until he catches sight of James Dean.
Though he's hardly even started his film career Dean (Dane DeHaan) already has a reputation for being difficult, and his studio boss Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley) thinks he's an irredeemable pain in the arse. But Stock sees something in him, a kind of stubborn truthfulness, and raw anger, that convinces him Dean is something special. When he asks Dean to do a photo shoot, the young actor is evasive, and very distracted by his faltering relationship with Hollywood beauty Pier Angeli.
But when that falls through and Dean retreats to New York, Stock follows him, and begins stalking him until he agrees to cooperate. Dean seems to like him, and their cat-and-mouse routine is not without a certain warmth, but in being evasive the young actor is not merely looking for attention. He seems to know that a shoot in Life will push him further towards fame and the loss of his anonymity, and about that he is profoundly ambivalent.
The Stock/Dean story is clearly a subject close to Anton Corbijn's heart: he was for many years one of the world's most respected rock photographers, and took those iconic pictures of U2 in the Mojave Desert for their Joshua Tree album. Since turning director in 2011 with his Joy Division biopic Control, Corbijn has impressed with his visual style and eye for composition, but some critics have dismissed his films as cold, aridly intellectual, and emotionally remote.
Not all of them have been kind to Life, but I liked its thoughtful pacing and the subtle way it teases out the complex interactions between Dean and his photographic Boswell. Dane DeHaan does a very nice job of capturing Dean's hesitant charisma and wounded psyche: if his performance seems a trifle mannered at times, that's entirely in keeping with Dean's painfully self-conscious mannerisms.
His performance grows through the film, so much so that he even begins to look like him. Pattinson has a harder time of it: his character seems a little one-dimensional next to Dean's, and he spends most of his time playing a grumpy and disaffected second fiddle.
My favourite scenes come late on, when Dean invites Stock to his aunt's farm in Indiana. And while the New York photographer tiptoes his way disdainfully through the cow-pats, James seems as happy as a child, away from the spotlight that will shortly kill him.
Life (15A, 111mins) 4 stars
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