Film Review: Life – A Portrait of American Icon James Dean

Anton Corbijn’s Life follows the budding friendship between James Dean (Dane DeHaan) and LIFE magazine photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson). It is set around the release of Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and just before Dean is cast in Rebel Without a Cause. Dean has posthumously become defined by these roles, making him a timeless posterboy for the disaffected and rebellious youth. This film however, nicely deconstructs that marketed image to instead show the true face and personality of the Indiana born Dean, while also showing the frustrations of both protagonists in their chosen field of work.

Dane DeHann and Robert Pattison in Life.  -
Dane DeHann and Robert Pattison in Life. Image via nomorehorsework

The film depicts how Stock shot some of the most candid and iconic photographs of all time. Dean and Stock first meet at a party while Dean quietly smokes outside avoiding the hustle and bustle of a disingenuous crowd more interested in networking than anything else. He invites Stock to a preview of East of Eden, after which, Stock realises that he will be photographing a legend in the making. They famously take the photograph in Times Square of Dean smoking but it isn’t until the pair travel to Dean‘s hometown in Indiana that we see the real beauty and craft of Stock’s photography and Dean’s more natural and comfortable self. There we see him play and read with his nephew, help on the farm and in general embrace his family. We are so familiar with these photographs but little about the story behind each one. It is a visually beautiful film and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (The Hunt) guarantees the recreation and story of these photos with a beautiful authenticity.

Today we live in a world so obsessed with photographing every single moment that our photographs seem to lack the significance and poignancy that they once held. Stock has to carry around a bag of light bulbs in his bag and change the bulb after each shot, but he studies his subject so well and captures something beautiful. In hindsight, there was a sense that Stock was photographing Dean’s soul in these photographs and I was moved by the relationship between Stock and Dean. Dane deHaan is phenomenal as the somewhat capricious Dean. He doesn’t look too much like the icon, but the flirtation and fluidity of his portrayal pulls you in and you believe you’re watching Dean himself. Pattinson as well is fantastic and almost steals the show as the main protagonist, but as the credits role and we see the actual photos of Dean, they hit you hard and there isn’t an audience member who would remain unmoved.

September 29 marks the 60th anniversary of Dean’s death. As Stock says in the film; ‘Photography is a good way of saying that I’ve been here and you’ve been here, we live in hope.Life is a fitting tribute to a wonderfully gifted actor and icon who although only worked in Hollywood for just over a year became the face of a generation. He represented a post war America and his untimely death solidified his place in the realm of mythic stardom to be easily manipulated like the industries of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. Go see the film. Go and see it so you know more about the figure you’ve had hanging on your wall in college, the icon James Dean.



Life is in cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.

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