An exquisitely captured true-life drama, but one which lacks any real sense of feeling.
Famed photographer and music video king Anton Corbijn returns to the silver screen after last year’s mismatched A Most Wanted Man starring the late Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final starring role. Once again taking on a real life subject, his first since 2007’s achingly beautiful Control, Corbijn sets his sights on another historical legend, James Dean, in a chronicle of the young star’s rising star power at the height of the 1950s.
Named for the involvement of the famous magazine of the same title, Life charts the blossoming friendship of the gifted Dean (Dane DeHaan) and acclaimed Magnum photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) in the months leading up to the release of Dean’s first film East of Eden. Following his own assignment, Stock tracks Dean from Los Angeles to New York City, attempting to capture the very essence of his mounting Hollywood persona, in the process taking the pictures which would come to define the careers of both young men.
Corbijn’s photographic background is clear to see in all of his work and Life is very much no exception. Its central narrative is so obviously engrained within the world of photography that Corbijn’s innate stylistic touch thrives here, almost more than ever before. His delicately crafted visuals stand as the film’s strongest feature, lovingly bringing to life the golden age of Hollywood with both charm and precision.
For the most part, leads DeHaan and Pattinson contribute to this earnest homage too, delivering tightly-wound performances which mould into Corbijn’s beautifully-realised backdrops almost perfectly. DeHaan certainly has more of a character to play with here than his co-star, clearly doing his very best to dig right down into the centre of what made Dean such an exciting property in his time, and the young actor largely succeeds, although sadly misses out on arguably one of Dean’s most definitive features: his innate edginess.
In fact, this is what ultimately feels lacking from the picture as a whole too. As stylish as Corbijn’s 50s America often appears, it lacks any real sense of heart or passion. Not once does it feel entirely genuine, always coming across as an imitation. An incredibly well crafted imitation, but an imitation none the less. Likewise, Pattinson and DeHaan are far from poor in their roles, and as the film progresses, their chemistry together becomes more and more believable, but initially – and particularly in engagements with other supporting characters – the whole affair comes across as a little bland. Their accents and styles may be on point, but there’s no real drive behind what they’re saying; no real honesty.
Partner this with a narrative which subtly flip-flops between the film’s two potential protagonists and ultimately, there’s no real depth to any of the proceedings. As enticing as both Stock’s struggles and Dean’s rise to stardom are, neither are explored fully enough to really garner the viewer’s full attention, offering up instead mere whispers of things that may well have been brilliant had they been given the room to expand.
Corbijn’s latest is by no means a failure, but promises far more from its drama than it ever actually delivers. Visually, his ode to the real-life photos Stock had published in Life magazine is near flawless, but on a deeper level, the film never engages with the viewer deeply enough to really make an impact. A classic matter of style over substance which, rather ironically, ultimately renders Life fairly lifeless.
Life (2015), directed by Anton Corbijn, is released in the UK on 25th September by Entertainment One. Certificate 15.