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Posts Tagged ‘Dev Patel’

I think most people would have been surprised, for the vast majority of the last quarter-century or so, to learn that Armando Ianucci would be directing an adaptation of a Charles Dickens novel. It’s only comparatively recently that Ianucci started directing films at all, with 2009’s In the Loop: before that he was best known as a writer, producer, and occasional performer of comedy and satire. The words ‘glittering career’ do not seem inappropriate, given he was involved in On the Hour and The Day Today, the early years of Alan Partridge, bringing Stewart Lee and Richard Herring to the BBC, and much else besides. Since becoming a film director, however, his philosophy seems to have been to pick the most surprising projects he can think of – the title of his last film, The Death of Stalin, didn’t exactly scream comic potential, but it turned out to be one of the best black comedies of recent years.

Now, the question is, can he find the funny in Charles Dickens to the same extent? Is he even going to try? The film in question is The Personal History of David Copperfield, based on the book of (roughly) the same name. Now, I’m going to own up to the fact that while in recent years I have come to appreciate and enjoy the very real merits of the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Jane Austen and Wilkie Collins, I have never actually read a Dickens novel in my life. Yes, yes, I know. So when I tell you that David Copperfield was apparently Dickens’ favourite of his own works, probably because it was semi-autobiographical, you can just thank Wikipedia – pretty much the extent of my exposure to the story has come from watching dear old Barry and Terrance’s BBC TV adaptation over thirty years ago.

As the title perhaps suggests, the film concerns the life of David Copperfield, a young man growing up in the mid-Victorian period. He is played for most of the film by Dev Patel. His father dies before he is born, but his early years with his mother are happy ones; then she re-marries to a hard and stern man, and David is eventually sent to London to earn his keep working in a factory. Here he meets the impecunious but eternally optimistic Micawber (Peter Capaldi) and his wife. Eventually he learns of his mother’s death and, rebelling against his treatment, seeks out his sole remaining relative, his aunt Betsey Trotwood (Tilda Swinton), who lives near Dover with her own distant relative, the amiable but eccentric Mr Dick (Hugh Laurie).

The story goes on in a roughly similar vein for most of the film – it came as no surprise to me to learn that Dickens apparently had no particular structure planned out in advance for the story when he wrote it. This is a substantially trimmed-down version of the plot of the book, with various characters and plotlines wholly or partly excised, but it still feels discursive and picaresque. Characters appear and reappear, and everyone seems to know each other in the most suspiciously convenient way. To be honest, though, the pleasure of the film – which is considerable – does not come from the plot, but from the performances and direction.

The most instantly noticeable thing about The Personal History of David Copperfield is that – well, he is Asian (Dev Patel’s background is somewhat complex, but his family is Gujarati Hindu). Agnes Wickfield is played by Rosalind Eleazar, who is Black; her father is played by Benedict Wong, whose family is originally from Hong Kong. The world being as it is, I am picking my words with some care, but: I always find myself a little bemused, at best, by the current tendency towards ethnically-diverse casts even when it is inappropriate for the period being depicted. If you are doing a contemporary or futuristic drama, then obviously it is absolutely laudable and correct to include performers from a wide range of backgrounds. I am likewise aware that, historically, the UK at least was somewhat more diverse than it has traditionally been depicted as in films and TV.

Neither of these things changes the fact that when I’m watching a film like Mary, Queen of Scots and a character like Bess of Hardwick is unexpectedly Chinese, it kicks me out of the story. I’m not sure what this achieves beyond creating a false image of the past, where it is like an idealised version of the present. Are the casting choices in David Copperfield therefore a problem? (I have already been asked if the new film is ‘a send up’, because of Dev Patel’s involvement.) Well, definitely not if you’re not someone who worries about this sort of thing in the first place, and not for me, either, because it seems very much of a piece with the rest of the film either. There are bold and interesting creative choices going on throughout: the film starts with Copperfield about to deliver a reading of his life story to a theatre audience, and the painted backdrop falls away to allow him to walk into his own past, where he appears as narrator alongside the characters and his younger self. In addition to being clever and inventive, this makes it clear the film is not affecting to present a naturalistic version of Victorian England, but a staged, mediated one. In this context, the ethnicity of the characters doesn’t really matter.

In any case, you can hardly accuse Dickens of studied naturalism. His characters are big and memorable ones, which demand a more heroic style of performance – and Ianucci has certainly found performers capable of delivering what is required. There are big comic turns from Peter Capaldi and Hugh Laurie in particular; Ben Whishaw plays Uriah Heep, and if I have a criticism of Ianucci’s adaptation of the novel it’s that this character and his plotline seems a bit too marginalised – it seems to me that there is potential for depth and pathos here which goes untapped, as it is suggested that it’s Heep’s desperate desire to climb socially which is what turns him into such a sour individual.

One of the impressive things about the film is that despite the fact it is largely pitched as – and has been marketed as – a comedy film, you do come away from it with a strong sense of more serious themes having been addressed. Social mobility is one of them – ‘rags to riches’ being just another way of describing a change of position in society – with class also being a significant element, along with the issue of poverty. The salvation of all the characters proves to be the strength of the affection binding them together, and the film does have a wonderful warmth and feeling of camaraderie suffusing it.

I’m not sure this really qualifies as one of the great literary adaptations of recent years, for the plot does feel like a bit of an afterthought and the more serious elements of the story have arguably been a bit neglected in favour of the lighter scenes. But it is an immensely likeable film, filled with fine performances and made with ceaseless wit and invention, and containing just enough seriousness to give it proper heft. A funny and sincere movie.

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What is going on with movies these days? I am quite as comfortable not having my emotions unnecessarily perturbed as any other man on the cusp of middle-age who is more-or-less resigned to his place on the Asperger’s spectrum, but it seems like I can’t sit down to watch a movie these days without feeling a sudden rush of, well, feeling, sometimes to the point where I actually start, you know, actually emoting in the theatre itself. Is it my age? Am I coming down with Bendii Syndrome? Or is it just something about the films at the moment? It’s a poser.

Hey ho. The latest culprit is also the first major ‘based on a true story’ film I’ve seen this year (not sure that Silence strictly counts, and virtually certain that xXx: Return of Xander Cage doesn’t), Garth Davis’s Lion. This is a film based around story elements with which I feel no particular connection – Indian social services, international adoption agencies, hotel management, Google Earth – but, as someone I was talking to just the other day suggested, that which is most personal is also most universal, which may explain how it managed to bypass my defences so neatly.

lion

Things kick off in India’s Khandwa region in 1986, where we encounter five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who is living in extreme poverty with his mother and siblings. Nevertheless he is happy, until one night when he and his elder brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) head off by rail to do a little casual labour. They are separated and Saroo ends up on the wrong train; two days later he arrives in Calcutta, 1500 miles away.

Saroo only speaks Hindi and the primary language in Calcutta is Bengali; also, no-one seems to recognise the name of his home. The child ends up living on the streets, only narrowly escaping all kinds of grim fates, and finally the authorities place him in a care home, which is really more like a rather brutal prison for children. And from here he is adopted by an affluent Tasmanian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Twenty years pass and Saroo grows up into a strapping young hotel management student (he is now played by Dev Patel, who does indeed look appropriately leonine), embarked upon a relationship with fellow trainee Lucy (Rooney Mara). Then a meal at the home of a friend from India sparks all kinds of memories, and someone casually suggests Saroo could work out roughly where his train odyssey began and use the then-new Google Earth to identify the station and backtrack from there to his actual home.

He dismisses the idea, but a seed has been planted, and it quickly turns into an obsession for him, as memories of his brother and mother resurface. Saroo becomes isolated from both his family and his partner as this seemingly-hopeless quest takes over his life. (And if you can’t guess how it all ends, I’m rather surprised.)

Got to say, I was rather dubious about this one when I first heard of it, because it just seemed like another attempt to channel that same sort of heartwarming subcontinental vibe as – apologies, but it’s inevitable – Slumdog Millionaire, while at the same time doing its bit to boost the share price of Google. I feel obliged to mention that my experiences watching films where Dev Patel plays a hotel manager have also been not entirely satisfying, either.

And the first two things at least do have at least a little bit of validity to them, in that the film can’t help but touch on some of the same topics as Danny Boyle’s big hit, and the Google logo does prominently feature throughout the second half of the film. Nevertheless, both of these things seem to happen only because they’re an intrinsic part of the story the film sets out to tell, rather than because of any other agenda on the part of the film-makers.

This is sort of a film of two halves, in that the first, quite-lengthy, non-Anglophonic section featuring Saroo’s travails as a small child lost in Calcutta is a very different proposition to the rest of the film featuring him as an adult. The fact that the opening is focused on a five-year-old boy, often in significant peril, inevitably makes it feel just a little bit manipulative, plus I suppose the setting and the fact it’s all in Hindi or Bengali also have a certain distancing effect. Speaking as a person of privilege from the First World, I found the story a bit easier to engage with once the setting and language became a little more familiar (and the film does address the issue of the gulf between these two worlds).

I suppose there’s a slight problem here in that this latter part of the film is short on what you’d call actual incident – the scriptwriter has spoken of the problem of ‘screens on screen’, and the perceived problems involved in stories largely revolving around people looking at computer peripherals. They have a good crack at making Saroo’s personal issues significant enough to influence the story – there’s the strain on his relationship with Lucy, plus the fact that he has a brother, also adopted from India, whose personal problems are of a different magnitude than his.

But it all really works, mainly because the performances are so strong. Wenham and Mara possibly don’t get quite the material they deserve, but Dev Patel gets a chance to do more than recycle his ‘lovably plucky young chap’ performance, and portray someone with some real angst and conflict going on. Nicole Kidman is also in more of a secondary role than you might expect, and her performance is very understated, but nevertheless highly effective – there’s one scene in particular where she talks quietly about the choices she has made in her life, and her hopes for her sons, and it’s one of those gut-punches of sheer human decency it’s almost impossible to resist.

The same can be said for most of the conclusion of the film, which articulates most clearly its themes of finding home and a connection to your family. You know more or less how this will play out. You know what’s going to happen. And yet, when it does, the sincerity of the film and the strength of the performances are enough to bypass your rational brain – if you’re anything like me, anyway – and the result is, well, as profoundly emotional as anything I’ve seen on screen in a long while.

Lion is the kind of film which in a normal year might sneak a couple of minor Oscars, but this year – I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s quite a movie of the very first rank, but it’s still skilfully made, with very impressive performances, and worth watching if you like a proper human interest drama. Other people may not take so kindly to having their emotions interfered with – but the fact remains that if you’re not deeply moved by the last few scenes of this film, there’s quite probably something organically wrong with you.

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The Oscars draw ever closer, but one film-maker of note who’s not in the running for anything this year is Danny Boyle, presumably because recently he’s been too busy doing Frankenstein on stage and preparing his contribution to the Olympics – an opening show entitled I Love Wonder (or something like that). To be perfectly honest I am supremely indifferent to the Olympics and would much rather Boyle cracked on with 28 Months Later, but there you go.

That said, the very fact I am looking forward to a Boyle movie at all is somewhat notable as I was fairly late coming to the party as far as this man is concerned. I remember the first time I saw Shallow Grave on video, lying on a mattress at 2am next to a demented wannabe director whose film I was nebulously attached to as co-scripter (we were both somewhat, ahem, medicated). I thought it was a solid movie but nothing special, and neither Trainspotting nor The Beach came close to the quality of their source novels.

That said, I did think 28 Days Later was a hugely impressive movie (possibly because it’s an uncredited adaptation of one of my favourite books), Sunshine was interestingly different and 127 Hours genuinely moving. My issue with a lot of Boyle’s work is with his habit of relentlessly overloading the screen with all kinds of conceits and narrative devices that the story neither needs nor can really support, to the ultimate detriment of the film. 127 Hours needed exactly this kind of treatment to work at all, which is why it felt like such a good match for Boyle.

Of course, the film which really brought Boyle international acclaim came out a couple of years earlier. I missed the initial release of Slumdog Millionaire due to being in Kyrgyzstan at the time, but I’ve caught up with it since and can fully understand just why this film did so well.

Dev Patel plays Jamal, a young chai-wallah (basically the tea boy) in a Mumbai call centre. But Jamal has a date with destiny when he goes on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (a TV game show made by the same company that produced this film – hmmm). Sixteen questions stand between Jamal and unimaginable wealth, but no-one expects an uneducated nobody like him to stand a chance. However, Jamal’s extraordinary life has left him uniquely well-prepared for this experience…

This being a Danny Boyle film, of course, just one framing device isn’t enough, and so wrapping around the gameshow idea are scenes in which Jamal is questioned (tortured, really) by the police, who suspect he was cheating on the show. From here we see the show and from the show we flash back through Jamal’s life, which is the meat of the movie. Growing up a rather unworldly child, alongside his more savvy brother Salim, he is orphaned in a sectarian riot, in the aftermath of which the brothers meet Latika, another child without a family.

As they grow to adulthood the trio are separated and reunited various times and in various combinations, but some things remain constant – Salim’s ruthlessness, and the emotional bond between Jamal and Latika. Can any of them hope to find a happy ending?

Well, I’m routinely very scathing about the Academy’s priorities when it comes to handing out the Oscars but fair play to them in this case – this is a very cleverly constructed and utterly engrossing film, full of life and colour and energy. The game show conceit is never quite as intrusive as you might expect it to be and the film isn’t afraid to turn on a sixpence in terms of its tone – a shocking and tense sequence about gangsters mutilating orphans to make them more productive beggars is followed quite closely by a genuinely funny set of scenes where the boys are working as tour guides around the Taj Mahal.

It really does sweep you up and carry you along, which is an even more impressive achievement given that it’s not afraid to address the darker side of life in the Mumbai slums. One of the themes of the film is the corruption that goes hand-in-hand with worldly success, something reflected in the way Mumbai itself is transformed over the years in which the film takes place. Only Jamal seems to be immune to this, and this of course is due to his love for Latika. Is it a bit sentimental? Well, yes, and for me there are a couple of mis-steps near the end, but by this point the film had generated more than enough goodwill for this not to be a problem.

Then again, with a film like this (or indeed City of God, which it sometimes resembles), there’s always the issue of rich foreigners turning up to a developing country and using genuine human poverty as the basis for them to make money for themselves – cinema as poverty tourism, in other words. On the other hand, some Indian commenters have criticised it on the grounds that it presents their country in too negative a light.

I don’t know; this is such a complex issue. Watching the film, it never quite seemed to be indulging itself in the kind of dubious exoticism that one might expect. Having been lucky enough to live and work in several different Asian countries myself, I don’t have much time for people who treat these places as giant-sized theme parks – and I never got the sense that this was the film-makers’ intention, even if it may have been some of the audience’s. And if we’re really going to be serious about the superficial exploitation of poverty and other cultures, doesn’t that limit us to either watching films about people exactly like us, or unsatisfying confections of total fantasy?

I am quite happy to give Slumdog Millionaire the benefit of the doubt, simply on the grounds of its style and wit and heart. There aren’t many films of recent years that I’ve seen on DVD and really regretted not seeing on the big screen: this, however, is definitely one of them.

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