Film interview: Life (15)

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One moment in time frozen on glossy photographic paper can capture the spirit of an era, touch hearts divided by conflict and occasionally shape global opinion.

Six soldiers raising the American flag on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima; a sailor planting an impromptu smacker on a nurse in New York amid celebrations to mark the end of the Second World War; a lone man standing in front of a Chinese military tank in Tiananmen Square; a pop band walking across Abbey Road; a drowned Syrian boy lying face down in the sand of a Turkish beach.

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These iconic images linger but more often than not, the person behind the camera, who was in the right place at the right time, goes unmentioned.

Directed by Anton Corbijn, the celebrated Dutch photographer who made a seamless transition to celluloid with the 2007 biopic Control about Ian Curtis of Joy Division, Life is a handsome drama about one of these unsung heroes and his close working relationship with a subject, who transfixes us 60 years after his untimely death.

In 1955 Los Angeles, photographer Dennis Stock (Robert Pattinson) - an employee of the Magnum agency overseen by John Morris (Joel Edgerton) - struggles to fulfil work commitments and his responsibilities to a young son, Rodney (Jack Fulton).

At a party thrown by Nicholas Ray (Peter Lucas), Stock encounters an awkward 24-year-old called James Dean (Dane DeHaan) propping up the bar.

The photographer is transfixed and spots a raw talent that could turn Dean into a global star.

He proposes a photo essay in Life magazine but the actor is reluctant to sell his soul for a few pictures.

Stock persists, capturing one of the most famous shots of the leading man: Dean hunkering down with a cigarette as he walks through a rain-sodden Times Square.

The snapper joins Dean on a trip back home to Indiana for some quality time with his uncle Marcus (Ron White), aunt Ortense (Eve Crawford) and young cousin Marcus (Kasey Lea).

Meanwhile back in Hollywood, Jack Warner (Sir Ben Kingsley) makes clear to Dean that he will need to scratch the backs of studio executives to land his dream role in Rebel Without A Cause.

“Is that even hygienic?” Quips the actor, unwisely.

Life is blessed with a mesmerising performance from DeHaan as the handsome star, who died seven months after his memorable encounter with Stock.

Pattinson is understated, but there is a pleasing rapport between the two actors as their characters wrestle with the hefty price of celebrity in an era of controlling studios.

Cinematography and impeccable production design beautifully capture the fashions and fads of a smoke and booze-stained era.

Corbijn directs at a pace that some audiences might find glacial, but considerable patience reaps decent emotional rewards.

Rating: 3/5