Life is the story of two men pursuing their individual artistic callings against the grain of industry norms. Both Dennis Stock and James Dean died as glittering names in photojournalism and acting. But in 1955, when this film is set, neither was established.
“What do you see in him?” asks Dennis’ agent (Joel Edgerton). This drama takes place during the run-up to the premiere of East of Eden, the film that would make Dean a major-league movie star. Warner Brothers are hemming over casting him in Rebel Without a Cause, fearing that his quirks and honesty make him unsuitable for the studio’s star template treatment.
“It’s an awkwardness, it’s something pure,” is what Dennis (Robert Pattinson) sees in Jimmy (Dane DeHaan). He is dying to get away from the red-carpet beat. In Dean, is the potential material for promotion to his desired field of serious, cultural photography. So begins the slippery business of pinning down the evasive but disarming boy from Marion, Indiana. Languid, conga-playing farmboy Jimmy, wants a friend, not a photographer. He’ll invite Dennis out for jazz and Benzedrine, dismissing the matter of professional engagements.
Corbijn uses their motivations – as well as their clashes – to convey the dance that takes place in media-talent relationships. Sometimes the film jitterbugs into exploitation, at others it waltzes into harmony. Dennis has a growing impatience to go with his approaching deadline. Jimmy is annoying, intentionally and unintentionally. DeHaan ratchets up Dean’s rhythmic speech, evoking a self-conscious performance-poet tasked with a Ginsberg reading. His cherubic face is worlds away from the big handsome mug of history. Studied mannerisms morph beautifully into sincerity but the affectations jar.
Dennis is his opposite. He is curt and minimal, essaying a very controlled, clock-watching professional. Pattinson’s performance is as crisp as the white shirt and black suits his character always wears, camouflage for problems that add depth to the film as they settle into shape.
In his 2007 debut, Control, Corbijn plumbed his roots as a photographer to create a decadent monochrome. In Life, composed frames show a tactile recreation of ’50s America. Vintage motors, hand-painted shop signs and theatres proudly announcing ‘CINEMASCOPE’ are evocative but not ostentatiously so. The air carries a seasonal coldness that lends images a frosty elegance. Many scenes feature men barking into old ebony phone receivers.
The social backdrop is just as carefully wrought. In another film, Ben Kingsley’s fuming studio head, Jack Warner, would be The Other Man to Jimmy Dean and the tussle would be of maverick versus the studio, Saving Mr Banks flavour. Instead, Kingsley ball-busts just enough to give Jimmyʼs non-conformity gravitas, but the viewfinder is trained on the man behind the camera, Dennis Stock. As Life proceeds, Pattinson steps up, allowing more of his character’s insides to come out. The pace picks up and by the third act it’s a compelling dramatisation of an artistically and morally fascinating alliance.