Film Review: Life (CTC, GER/USA/CAN/AUS, 2015)

The title of this film doesn’t really give much of an insight into its narrative and in fact, the word “life” has a bit of a double entendre. It couples as both the act of existing as well as the name of the publication that one of our leads works for. Not so surprisingly though, a film titled Life will of course leave you to question some of the nuances of existence.

Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) is a photographer with Life magazine wanting to move on from shooting red carpet premieres and movie set stills and determined to photograph something that has more substance. Whilst at a Hollywood party a chance meeting with up and coming star James Dean (Dane DeHaan) piques his interest. Stock is convinced that Dean is just the right subject for a photo essay, a star about to break who captures the youth of America and a turning cultural tide. Though Dean is initially reluctant to be a part of Stock’s project, a trust and bond develops between the two young men. The result of which are some of the most iconic photos in Hollywood history that captured the last fleeting moments of intimacy and simplicity of Dean’s life before his untimely death.

Director Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man, Control) teams up with Aussie screenplay writer Luke Davies (Candy, Reclaim) for this not-quite a biopic that focuses on a short period of time across the lives of both Stock and Dean. Rather than focusing on one individual it hops between the two and examines how they each impart a change in each other. There are moments in the film where the relationship feels involuntary, and that the evolution of it doesn’t feel as organic as it could or would have been in real life. But on the other hand when the two finally do come together and bond it’s awkward in a cute and endearing way.

DeHaan’s performance felt like a mixed bag, it’s obvious that he was chosen more for his acting chops than his resemblance to Dean. There were instances where his portrayal felt forced and more like imitation than embodiment, which makes it hard to warm to him when he does express his vulnerabilities. Pattinson on the other hand felt more rounded and believable as the earnest snapper struggling to further his career but also accept his responsibility as a father. Also he’s the more relatable of the two, since Dean is presented as elusive and existing on the edge of that Hollywood world that we can only dream about. Aussie actor Joel Edgerton gets a bit of a throw-away role as Stock’s editor John Morris, and in all honesty if he wasn’t there you probably wouldn’t have noticed. Ben Kingsley gets to ham it up a little as Jack Warner, the head of the studio who is more accustomed to having control over his stars. The scene where he calls Dean to task for his behaviour “I’m not sure we should emphasize the rebel in you Jimmy” Warner drawls, are well played with a hint of manipulation on the side. But where Corbijn and Davies succeed is in making this more of a character study about our two leads, and if you can take it on that merit then it’s a little more palatable.

Where this film really shines is in transporting you back to the era of the 1950’s, everything from the visuals, the costumes, the hairstyles, the sets and the music. With the film arc beginning in Los Angeles, then moving to New York, and ending in rural Fairmount, Indiana. There is a real sense of transportation from place to place, from the sunny and warm disposition of Los Angeles, to the cramped bustling grey of New York to the wide open space of Fairmount with its sole traffic light on the main street. Director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen and production designer Anastasio Masaro’s work transports us from one location to the next and marries up the film photography with the actual photographic images taken by the real Stock. Christensen and Corbijn manage to frame and colour the film beautifully. Gersha Phillips has all our cast wearing some fine threads and looking fantastic and it helps to evoke the style and simplicity of the era.

Anton Corbijn’s Life is a beautiful character study of two young men at important crossroads in their lives. Where had fate not played its part we may not have been gifted with some beautiful images of a life cut short. It might take some liberties with the performances and truth but it’s still a visually elegant story that’s told.

Review Score: THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 111 minutes

Life screens in Australian cinemas from 10 September 2015 through Transmission Films