Anton Corbijn helms an intriguing but unfocused James Dean biopic
Dutch director Anton Corbijn (A Most Wanted Man) sets himself a seemingly impossible task with his fourth feature, as he takes on that icon of disaffection James Dean; a star who shone so brightly during his short spell in the spotlight, making just three films – two of which he was posthumously Oscar-nominated for, the third would go on to define a generation. Life depicts Dean as a sensitive, capricious creature, staring down his impending fame with paralysing foreboding.
Working from Luke Davies' script, the former photographer Corbijn approaches events from a personal angle. Set in the run-up to the release of his big break, East of Eden, Dean (Dane DeHaan) is also anxiously awaiting the result of his audition for Rebel Without a Cause. When he meets prickly snapper Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) at a party, Stock sees this awkward enigma's potential, pitching him as a subject to Magnum Photos editor John G Morris (Joel Edgerton, cast effectively against type), with a view to securing a Life magazine spread.
DeHaan rises to the considerable challenge of the assignment, making his Dean effeminate yet edgy, and imbuing him with an intangible, almost ethereal quality – all of which is consistent with Dean's distinctive screen persona. He plays this gently mischievous man like he's a ghost already, a spirit guide to the uptight and visibly-in-crisis Stock.
Life dodges one of the pitfalls of the Hollywood biopic by spending enough time away from the industry not to get bogged down in a series of distracting impersonations (Ben Kingsley's scenery-devouring studio boss Jack Warner being an unwelcome exception). Unfortunately it purports to be about the process of finding one's artistic 'voice', yet fails to fully explore the conceit. Life also suffers from a floundering focus, uncertain of who it wants its protagonist to be – the more interesting actor, or the thinly drawn man through which we view him. It plumps for Stock for the most part, but is unable to tear itself away from Dean in the closing moments, as he teeters on the cliff-edge of both stardom and death.
General release from Fri 25 Sep.