Where biopics are concerned, sometimes, less is most definitely more. There’s a lot to be said for the birth-death, comprehensive study of somebody incredible – take Ray, for instance. But to delve into the subject’s life for just a brief while, a mere snippet of their life, can be equally – if not more rewarding and compelling, telling us everything we need to know; as one short stint can be emblematic of everything they stand for, everything they were. It worked in the remarkable drama Selma, and it’s proven to be a triumphant approach in Anton Corbijn’s Life too, with the treasured Hollywood icon James Dean the centre of attention.
We delve into this world through the perspective of photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) who manages to convince his editor at Life Magazine to commission a photo-essay on the upcoming actor James Dean (Dane DeHaan). Though reluctant at first, the absorbing performer realises that exposure could help boost his chances of landing the leading role in Rebel Without a Cause, and impressing studio executive Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley). So for the article, Dean takes Stock with him to New York and then on to Indiana, to his own home, as the photographer attempts to get to know the human being behind the facade.
We completely embody Stock, so while he seeks in discovering the real James Dean, in turn, so do we – which is what makes for such an absorbing watch. We, like Stock, become the voyeur, and this is a notion enhanced by Corbijn, as in some of the most emotionally rich, important scenes – such as when Dean is reconnected with his family – we peer in with an over the shoulder shot, rather that focusing on the subject; and using close ups, we see what Stock sees, with the camera lurking behind him.
Though having an ability to shine as a leading man, this is a rare, understated turn from Pattinson, who very much takes a back seat, with the focus squarely on Dean. And DeHaan does a remarkable job portraying the man himself, not just physically, but in his whole demeanour: we can’t take our eyes off him, beguiled by his presence – just like Dean. Biopics are a regular occurrence in cinema, but few have been as accomplished as this endeavour in recent years.