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Life Review

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Ambitious freelance photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) tries to secure a photo shoot with 1955’s most promising new actor: James Dean (Dane DeHaan).

★★★★★

Odd to say, given his vociferous fanbase, but Robert Pattinson is quietly becoming one of our most interesting young actors. Those of us who dismissed the Twilight heartthrob as a pair of cheekbones who got lucky should now guiltily rescind the snark, as he’s not only growing as a performer but is unabashedly using his star status to pursue interesting, off-kilter work that may not otherwise get made. The wan vampire is on the side of the cinematic angels.

That’s not saying the films are entirely successful or that playing ambitious young men who feel out of their depth should be considered, on the face of it, much of a stretch for him. But here he shows sides of fragility and frustrated tenderness — for his character’s son sidelined by his father’s professional desires — that are deftly affecting.

It’s not hard to see why the story may have appealed to him given it’s about a young actor both drawn to and appalled by success. Or at least, its corollary: fame. He’s ostensibly the straight man opposite Dane DeHaan’s purring, adorable James Dean, but what the film does well is show how the line between star-fucker and fuckee isn’t a clean one. As erstwhile BBC film authority Barry Norman once observed “All critics are parasites — but parasites can be useful.” So it goes with journalists and photographers; there is mutual back-scratching until one eclipses the other.

Director Anton Corbijn — who has photographed everyone from The Rolling Stones to Joy Division (the subject of his first feature film, Control) — knows all about this, of course. Pattinson’s photographer adds to the heat around Dean, the sense that he is going to make it big (although perhaps we, dear audience, are supposed to be a little worried about the actor’s interest in speed — both literal and pharmaceutical).

What the film doesn’t do is justify its dwelling on a drama-light quest — the snapper’s attempt to get the star to pose for a soul-baring photo shoot — over virtually all of its running time. There is only so much time you can sympathise with a coy pin-up and his ambitious attendant, no matter how gifted the performers. If the playfulness and sensuality of DeHaan were matched by the film’s pace and composition then it might sustain such a slight story, but the tone and sense of its own importance are captured by the title: Life. This is a movie that is pretty sure it has Something To Say, though isn’t quite sure What That Is. Though wildly contrasting in genre and look, it brings to mind another picture about pictures featuring LIFE magazine: Ben Stiller’s The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. It is similarly a little too self-regarding and desperate to move you. The film’s strength and weakness is captured in Dean’s train-set story about dealing with his mother’s death. DeHaan is brilliant and then brilliant and then brilliant some more, as the scene is stretched for what feels like the journey. Similarly the ending reaches for the sky, because it doesn’t quite know where to land.

Doesn't register emotionally in the way it strives for, but is diverting as a portrait of the nascent celebrity industry, with fine performances from Dane DeHaan and Robert Pattinson.

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