Life (15)

three stars

Dir: Anton Corbijn

With: Robert Pattinson, Dane DeHaan, Joel Edgerton

Runtime: 111 minutes

PITY any young actor who opts to play James Dean, the subject of Anton Corbijn’s handsome drama. Portraying the forever young star who lived fast and died tragically early must be the stuff of both fantasies and nightmares.

Trying the look and attitude for size here is Dane DeHaan, an actor best known to date for Kill Your Darlings and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. At 29, he is five years older than Dean was when he died some 60 years ago next week.

DeHaan does a pretty fine job, too, even if he is overshadowed by co-star Robert Pattinson and the film as a whole is more of a mood piece than a traditional motion picture with a definite place to go. Offering a glimpse of a brief time in Dean’s life, Corbijn’s film is all about the detail, the small stuff that hopes to speak of something bigger.

The time in question was 1955. East of Eden had just finished shooting. Dean had served his apprenticeship on television and success was in sight if he could just get the part he coveted in Rebel Without a Cause.

Dennis Stock (Pattinson) was another hungry young man. A red carpet snapper who wanted to blow away the froth and make a name for himself as a serious photographer, Stock met Dean at a party and immediately saw the star in him. He offered Dean a deal: let me shoot you for Life magazine, you get the publicity, I get the kudos, we both win.

It was an offer at which any young actor would lunge. That Dean had to be coaxed and almost babied into it was telling. While he wanted fame, he was not keen on playing the fame game.

From this slender premise - the setting up and execution of a photoshoot - does Corbijn attempt to conjure a film. In many ways, Corbijn is an ideal fit for the job. As the director of Control, the much lauded, 2007 biopic of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, he knows a thing or four about capturing the essence of pop cultural icons. And as a noted photographer before he turned director, the Dutchman can bring the ultimate insider’s view.

As those who saw The American and A Most Wanted Man will testify, Corbijn is a director who likes, more than anything else, to get the mood and the visuals just right. On the upside, that means his films look terrific, picture perfect. His Los Angeles of 1955, all movie premieres and sunshine, is drop dead glamorous, and his New York of the same year is cold and brittle. The downside of all this attention to setting, however, is that his films take their own sweet time to get going. Even when Life eventually stirs into action, it is as slouchy as its jazz soundtrack.

Life is at its best when it looks at the relationship between photographer and subject, the hunter and the hunted. Each is a little in love with the other, but there is hostility there too. “You think you’re giving me something that’s not coming my way?” Dean asks Stock. Similarly, in the brief but explosive scenes featuring Ben Kingsley as Jack Warner, we see the old studio system, control to the fore, in action.

As we follow Stock pursuing Dean, the action switches from New York to the farm in Indiana where the actor was raised and where his relatives remain. This is the “real” Dean that Stock’s boss (Joel Edgerton) has told him to capture, but can he?

A million posters on bedroom walls - plus the movie’s postscript - tells us that he did, so no surprise there. No shocks, either, in DeHaan’s portrayal of Dean as a softly spoken, slightly dazzled farm boy turned teen idol. He does not look much like Dean, the face is too full, but he captures his attitude well enough.

The unexpected delight here is Pattinson, who takes the character of Stock and shows every side of him, the unflattering ones included, to the camera. The photographer exposed as another young star is born.