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film review

Robert Pattinson and Dane DeHaan are photographer Dennis Stock and actor James Dean in Life.

What was it Forrest Gump's mama said, about life being like a box of chocolates? "You never know what you're gonna get," the fictional simpleton philosopher explained. Life, the lovely-looking new film from Anton Corbijn, has that same unexpectedness: Scene to scene, even line to line, you never know what you're gonna get.

Robert Pattinson is Dennis Stock, a young photojournalist looking to make art in black and white. Based in Los Angeles (but with a wife and child he's ambivalent about in New York), he's tired of red-carpet assignments and Hollywood movie machinery. But here comes James Dean (Dane DeHaan), a professional at being blithe. Stock wants to photograph the ascending actor before the world discovers him, and by doing so, give his own fledgling career a rocket-fuel boost, too. "I want to capture his awkwardness," Stock says. "It's pure."

Dean is rightly wary of those who want parts of him, and so the dance is on. It's some dance, too, made weirder by the pair's vaguely sexual chemistry and the confusion as to which partner is supposed to be leading. The pair never fully hit it off; the relationship's footing is reliably unsure.

Life, a moody, leisurely and occasionally frustrating piece of work, gets its name from the magazine to which Stock is pitching pics of Dean in 1955, right around the release of East of Eden, the brooding actor's breakout film. Asked what he is going to do with his clearly considerable talent, Dean says he'll just keep ignoring it or keep it to himself. "It's worked so far," he reckons.

Dean's insouciance is frustrating to publicists and infuriating to studio bosses. That's Ben Kingsley rightly cast as Jack L. Warner, the maestro mogul who's just had it to up to here with Dean's unreliability. Photographer Stock isn't enamoured with the actor's elusiveness either.

The film is a two-hander, but one gets the feeling that Stock's character was meant for magnification. It doesn't turn out that way, though. The role is confusingly written – hard to get a read on this guy. Pattinson, the London-born Twilight star, shrinks on screen. When Dean takes Stock along to his family's farm in Indiana, the photographer, nervous and hesitant, resorts to highly staged shots of Dean, the method actor who disapproves of the fakery. "I'm disappointed in you, Dennis," he says, shaking his head. And this reviewer, when it comes to the talented Pattinson, shares the sentiment.

So DeHaan fills the void, playing Dean deeply and sensitively. He's no James Dean, mind you … well, he is … oh, you know what I mean.

Now, perhaps most of you are too young to know about things that happened in 1955, but no plots are spoiled by telling you that Stock got his shots of Dean into Life magazine. You must have seen the iconic capture of the brooding actor walking in the cold rain in Times Square, collar up and cigarette engaged.

Corbijn's Life is about artistic purity and the fame-game folly that interferes. It's a weird rope to walk, no doubt. The film ends awkwardly; it's hard to say if Dean and Stock have struck the balances they find comfortable. Life, right?