Director Anton Corbijn was himself originally a well thought of photographer before he became a film maker and this movie concentrates as much on the photographer, Dennis Stock, who is sent by Life magazine in 1955 to do a photographic feature on rising star James Dean, as it does on Dean himself. We see James Dean (Dane DeHaan) as a constantly smoking, somewhat solitary figure who the studio bosses, including Jack Warner (Ben Kingsley), find very difficult to deal with. Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) is a freelance photographer who is trying to make a name for himself. His ex-wife and son are in New York but he spends most of his time chasing assignments in Hollywood.
Meeting James Dean at a party, Dennis is surprised to be asked to accompany the actor to a screening of his new film, East of Eden. He soon realises that Dean is something special and manages to get a contract with LIFE magazine to do the photos for his picture article. However, Dean is extraordinarily difficult to pin down and Dennis eventually follows Jimmy to New York where he takes many pictures and then to the actor’s family home in the Midwest. Both lots of pictures capture something of the real James and one in particular – Dean in a big coat in the rain walking along a street in New York, smoking a cigarette – is still recognised as iconic.
It seems rather like a documentary until Ben Kingsley comes on as a very exaggerated version of Jack Warner, the boss of Warner studios. You can see why Corbijn, who gave us the excellent Control movie, has chosen DeHaan to play Dean. While he doesn’t look like James Dean, Dane certainly has a little of the star quality and puts across the dialogue – in a well-written screenplay by Luke Davies – in the right manner and with the correct body movement. Nobody else could play Dean as it is because he was unique and had this special quality that he became so well-known (even though he only appeared in three films), that we are still so interested in his life. Even the best singer imitating the great Sinatra, can’t give us Sinatra’s unique voice and so nobody can really “do” James Dean.
Robert Pattinson shows that he is not just a good-looking vampire but a real actor who can put over someone who comes across as subdued besides the charismatic Dean, but has depth. We are shown both sides of his character – the hustling commercial photographer and the Dad trying to re-engage with his young son.
This is not just another biopic but a well-written, beautifully acted and photographed film directed by someone who has a personal interest in the life of a photographer, giving us a new take on the life of James Dean, one of the all-time great film actors.
Review by Carlie Newman