This small, well-coiffed and attentively designed film shows us a few weeks in the life of James Dean (Dane DeHaan) on the brink of reluctant stardom in 1955. Robert Pattinson co-stars as Dennis Stock, a Life magazine photographer from New York desperately wooing the farm boy from Indiana to give his own career a much-needed shot in the arm. ‘Life’ continues the current vogue for framing microcosmic snapshots of well-known folk’s lives in the hope that greater truths will emerge. But for every virtuoso ‘Lincoln’ there’s a pedestrian ‘My Week with Marilyn’, and this leans closer to the latter, setting up Dean and Stock’s relationship as meaningful, but in the end offering only a mildly interesting, gossipy window on Dean’s side of the tale as he hovered in limbo between the release of ‘East of Eden’ and shooting ‘Rebel without a Cause’.
Director Anton Corbijn (‘Control’, ‘The American’), a photographer himself (and he plays one here in a brief cameo), lends the whole thing a Dean-like careful poise, and DeHaan is good at getting across the actor’s heavy-eyelided, good-spirited insouciance (even if, in the end, he doesn’t have the looks). There’s also a fun turn by Ben Kingsley illustrating studio boss Jack Warner’s control of his stars (‘If you’re not a good boy, I’m going to fuck you til it hurts’).
But ultimately Luke Davies’s script, for all its warm observations on the man behind the myth (there are winning scenes back at Dean’s uncle and aunt’s farm), feels like a footnote to a footnote in our cultural history. ‘Life’ also upstages itself in its final moments by showing us the real Life photographs – necessarily perhaps – reminding us that DeHaan will never be Dean and that reconstructions pale next to the real thing. In the end ‘Life’ feels like a gentle taster for the man, the period, the photos and the legend to come.