When we think of matinee idol James Dean, we think cheeky, young and handsome – a delinquent dreamer of Hollywood’s golden age. We think Rebel Without a Cause, mostly. Dutch director Anton Corbijn, however, presents us with a very different side in his latest project, Life.
The biographical film documents the true-life friendship between Dean and LIFE magazine photographer Dennis Stock. Stock sees something twinkly and new in the young actor, and just before the release of Dean’s breakthrough movie East of Eden, he photographs him. The pair travel from Los Angeles to New York and across to Indiana in the hope of discovering the real James Dean, but as so often happens, Stock ends up learning more about himself on the way.
It’s a serious slow burner, full of long pauses and heavy dialogue, but makes for a fascinating character study of both Dean and Stock. HBO’s In Treatment star Dane DeHaan has the difficult and sure-to-be-scrutinised role of bringing Dean to life (pun not intended), and does a surprisingly good job. DeHaan’s young DiCaprio good looks (which aid in making the 29-year-old actor pass as 24-year-old Dean) are hidden behind tinted glasses, a fierce curled quiff and crinkly smiles.
He may not be as physical accurate as James Franco in his 2001 turn, but with a cigarette loosely jutting out of his mouth for most of the movie, DeHaan appropriately looses himself in the walk and talk of James Dean.
With a sultry squint or an awkward giggle, the screen persona of Dean is animated once again. But that’s just it – the screen version is what is most identifiable. DeHaan has a lot of meaty dialogue to sink his teeth into (most notably the train sequence) and as the film progresses, eventually gets the chance to show James Dean is a relatively new light – as a farm boy. He takes Stock back to his hometown in Indiana, and it is immediately clear that he is most comfortable and content amongst the cattle, mingling with his aunt and uncle and reading with his comic-crazy nephew.
Corbijn’s portrait of Dean is not dissimilar to his portrayal of troubled Joy Divison frontman Ian Curtis (played to absolute perfection by then-rising star Sam Riley in 2007’s black-and-white masterpiece Control). Again, we are presented with a young man on the brink of superstardom – on the cusp of becoming a household name – but he is far from ready, and it’s a sentiment echoed by photographer Stock too.
Robert Pattinson is given another chance to shake off his Twilight days with Dennis Stock, a man whose personality, persistence and pathetic parental instincts make him out to be more confused then even Dean was. A mumbly Magnum snapper, Stock is both fascinated and obsessed with Dean, and makes it his mission to photograph him.
The two men bond and bicker consistently – and sometimes simultaneously – and DeHaan’s often effeminately voiced and acted Dean (either intentionally or accidentally) hints ever so slightly at underlying homoerotic tension between the pair. Luke Davies’ script gives both actors a chance to dig deep into their character’s backstories, but as far as supporting roles go, there isn’t much to share around.
In terms of leading ladies (and I use the term loosely), there are two. Alessandra Mastronardi flails around in bed as actress Pier Angeli, (a spitting image for Dean’s one-time love interest), while Stella Schnabel’s nagging eats up her brief screen time as Stock’s ex-wife Norma. Iconic British actor Ben Kingsley is fairly important as studio mogul Jack Warner (of Warner Bros. no less), but his aggressively wooden performance makes his moments slightly cringe-worthy and forgettable (cue the unnecessary outburst “I will f**k you and it’ll hurt!”).
Aussie talent Joel Edgerton is solid as Stock’s mostly sympathetic agent John Morris, and newcomer Lauren Gallagher has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it stab at playing the late screen siren Natalie Wood.
Life presents viewers with another side to an iconic face. James Dean tragically only lived to the age of 24, but in those short active years in Hollywood, he carved out a name and a career that would live on for a lot longer. Although we’ll never truly know the “real” James Dean, so far, this is as creatively close as we’ll get.
Life opens in cinemas today.