Anton Corbijn’s 2015 film Life, based on James Dean’s short stint of photographic fame, is an alluring period piece which offers a glimpse into the 1950s. Beyond this, the meandering plot fails to bring its weak characters to life.
In 1955, before the release of his first feature film, East of Eden, Dean met Dennis Stock, photographer for Magnum Photos Agency. Stock, determined to capture the essence of Dean for a photographic profile, follows him from Los Angeles to New York, and then to Dean’s family farm in rural Indiana. Dean’s time in the spotlight was short-lived, with the release of three feature films and death by car accident months later at the age of 24.
Within the film, the relationship between the two young men lacks a great deal of substance. The film never really recovers from its slow start, with a storyline that drags on. There doesn’t actually seem to be any real build-up to the lacklustre climax, causing the film to feel like a simple retelling of inconsequential events. The opportunity to create something great, based on 1950s film star Dean and the iconic images captured by a Stock, was definitely missed.
Additionally, Stock’s character, portrayed by Robert Pattinson, feels a little flat. He lacks substance, like a paper doll used as a placeholder for an actual character. This is no fault of Pattinson, who manages to do justice to a poorly written character. Some depth evolves throughout the film, revealing Stock’s issues with a frustrated ex-wife and young son plagued by his absence; however, these details feel a bit too little, too late.
Dean, played by Dane DeHaan, fares somewhat better than Stock. DeHaan does a good job capturing the essence of Dean: a charismatic-yet-selfish actor. At times, a double-take is needed to ensure that, at least physically, DeHaan hasn’t been replaced by Dean himself. However, in terms of personality, he isn’t perfect for the role. DeHaan’s portrayal feels a little soft, lacking a hint of passion that would take his performance to the next level.
On a positive note, the film beautifully recreated a 1950s aesthetic, appropriately depicting both men’s and women’s fashion of the time. On top of that, it garners attention for Stock, crediting him with images of Dean which remain iconic today. It also gets a few Canadian bonus points for being filmed in downtown Toronto. The acting was effective, yet the character writing was poorly executed. Despite being historically informative, Life ultimately left something to be desired.