Tag: Dev Patel

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

Dev Patel makes a charming lead in this Dickens adaptation that finds the comedy but misses the heart

Dir: Armando Iannucci

Cast: Dev Patel (David Copperfield), Tilda Swinton (Betsey Trotwood), Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick), Peter Capaldi (Mr Micawber), Ben Whishaw (Uriah Heep), Paul Whitehouse (Mr Peggotty), Aneurin Barnard (James Steerforth), Daisy May Cooper (Peggotty), Morfydd Clark (Dora Spenlow/Clara Copperfield), Benedict Wong (Mr Wickfield), Darren Boyd (Mr Murdstone), Gwendoline Christie (Jane Murdstone), Anthony Welsh (Ham Peggotty), Rosalind Eleazar (Agnes Wickfield), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Mrs Steerforth), Anna Maxwell Martin (Mrs Strong)

If Charles Dickens ever had a favourite child, it was probably David Copperfield. His novel – heavily inspired by events in his own life and upbringing – is an epic masterpiece, part coming-of-age story, part heart-warming family saga, part social satire. It’s quite a challenge to boil down its hundreds and hundreds of pages – and multiple plot points and characters – into less than two hours, but that’s the task Armando Iannucci takes on here. Does it work?

Well, to be honest, not quite. There is a lot to admire here, I’ll say that straightaway. And maybe I’m hard on it as I’ve read (or listened to) the novel at least three times. But for me this version drains out the heart of the novel. It zeroes in on the comedy – and there are several scenes and characters that are inarguably funny – but in doing so it removes or peels away anything bittersweet or with even a hint of sadness. It’s funny, but also a strangely empty and unengaging version of the story that it’s hard to get invested in and finally seems to drag.

Iannucci uses a terrific framing device, inspired by Dickens’ own public readings of his work. The film opens with Copperfield (a wonderfully jovial and engaging Dev Patel) publically introducing his novel to a theatre full of people which, with a flourish, disappears as he walks into the scenery and into his own past. Iannucci sprinkles his film with little flourishes like this to remind us of the semi-created nature of what we are watching, from Mr Murdstone’s hand looming into the Peggottys’ boat to pluck Copperfield into the next scene, through to the use of projected imagery at key points to fill in visually backstories the characters in the scene are relating.

The book has been well pruned and structured – and this is in some ways a triumph of compression, since it ticks off nearly all the main storylines of the plot (with some changes) and includes all the main characters. The real purist will decry such things as the loss of Barkis and Mr Micawber’s famous lines, or the translation of Mr Creakle into a factory owner or Rosa Dartworth into Steerforth’s mother. But these are necessities of adaptation and much of the storyline remains the same (if abbreviated). The script punches up the comedy a great deal – Iannucci has been vocal in his feeling that Dickens does not get the appreciation he deserves as a comic writer.

The script also digs up a few gems in the novel – Copperfield’s nervousness in reading, his inability to read to Murdstone’s gaze, is imaginatively reinterpreted as dyslexia. The semi-Freudian longing he feels for the warmth and innocence of his lost childhood is neatly captured by casting Morfydd Clark (very endearing and charmingly ditsy) as both his mother and his first love Dora. There are several laugh-out loud moments and a charmingly freewheeling love for absurdity.

But what doesn’t work is that the heart and soul of the novel has been stripped out. There is, to put it frankly, no pain or difficulty here. The tears in Dev Patel’s eyes at the end of the film as he closes his recital with the audience and reflects on the triumphs and losses of his life feel unearned. Put frankly nothing seems that hard, for all poverty rears its head at time. Even the Murdstones are less fearsome and cruel than they need to be. Worst of all, anything of any real emotional depth or tragedy from the book is removed. The two key tragic deaths of the book are actively reversed here, with both Dora and Ham surviving at the end. The complexities of Copperfield’s feelings for Dora and Agnes are resolved with immense ease for a traditional happy ending in a garden of the heroes surrounded by friends and families (exactly the sort of happy ending that Greta Gerwig gently poked fun at in Little Women). 

It’s all boiled down and told for jokes and the emotional engagement just isn’t there. Dev Patel enters the film too early – Copperfield is a young adult before he even heads to his aunt’s house – meaning the lost, vulnerable sense of sad childhood turning into a happy one is completely lost, and Copperfield’s fragility is too quickly brushed aside. Mr Micawber (a funny turn from Capaldi, but far too wheedling) is played so much for laughs that his essential decency and kindness is lost in favour of a man who spends his life borrowing cash. Too often humour is the first and only port of call, and finally it crushes the heart out of the story.

There are triumphs in the film’s cast. Hugh Laurie is simply outstanding as Mr Dick – warm, funny, wise, surreal, eccentric, half a philosopher, half an engaging and excited child – it’s Laurie’s finest performance ever on film. Benedict Wong is very funny as the alcoholic Mr Wicklfield. Tilda Swinton has great fun as a battleaxe but wise Miss Trotwood. Nikki Annuka-Bird could cut glass as Mrs Steerforth. Aneurin Barnard makes for a charmingly dissolute Steerforth. Ben Whishaw is terrific as the unctuous and ambitious Uriah Heep. The colour-blind casting works a treat to bring a range of wonderful actors in.

It’s just a shame the story doesn’t translate as well. There is a theme somewhere in here of Copperfield trying to work out his identity (much prominence is given to his multiple names and nicknames) but it never really takes flight, serving as a fig leaf of an arc rather than an actual arc. It’s a film full of jokes and fine moments – but with no heart, and no real engagement with the audience, it ends up feeling far longer than reading the book.

Lion (2016)

Dev Patel searches for his past in Lion

Director: Garth Davies

Cast: Sunny Pawar (Young Saroo), Dev Patel (Saroo Brierley), Rooney Mara (Lucy), Nicole Kidman (Sue Brierley), David Wenham (John Brierley), Abishek Bharate (Guddu), Divina Ladwa (Mantosh Brierley), Priyanka Bose (Kamla Munshi), Seepti Naval (Saroj Sood)

In 1986, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is accidentally separated from his brother Guddu (Abishek Bharate) and mother (Priyanka Bose) after being trapped on a train that travels 1,600km to Calcutta. Unable to find his way home, and dodging the dangers of Calcutta’s streets, he eventually ends up in an orphanage. He is adopted by an Australian couple, the Brierleys (fine and tender performances Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty years later, a chance meeting with a group of Indian students brings Saroo’s (Dev Patel) memories flooding back– and dedicates himself to retracing his steps and finding his family in India.

Lion is an overlong expansion of a story that would really spark your interest when presented in a newspaper article. But Garth Davies’ film drains the dramatic life out of the story by ludicrously overextending the telling in order to try and eke as much emotion from the audience as possible. Lion is under two hours, but it really should be at most an hour and a half.

The problem is the central section in Australia, while our hero tries to locate his roots. It just isn’t quite interesting enough, despite sterling, committed and emotional work from Dev Patel. Put simply, even with an extraordinary story like this, the film can’t help but communicate Sarro’s obsessions through cinema’s clichés. So we get a madness board with pins and bits of string to link clues. We get Saroo increasingly dishevelled. We get him driving away family and girlfriend. We get moody, tearful glances into the middle distance. Even the final solution to the mystery occurs after a spark of inspiration during a rage fuelled “I’m going to wreck this board and give up” moment. This whole section just serves to reduce the story into movie-of-the-week territory.

The film just doesn’t quite connect with us as it should. Perhaps because of the amount of time given over to very slow Google Earth searches, or overblown camera tracking shots across train lines, or expansive slow, piano-scored moments of emotional torment from Saroo. It’s a shame because there are flashes of good material in there – Nicole Kidman’s has a stand out scene to explain why she chose not to have children – and Dev Patel is the best he’s been. But it doesn’t quite work. After Saroo’s emotional revelation at an Indian friend’s house and realisation that he is “lost” (and this quiet devastation from Patel is affecting), the story doesn’t really kick off. It just slows down.

It’s a shame as the opening third of the film with young Saroo lost in Calcutta is very well done, even if it seems virtually every male living on the streets is a paedophile. The early scenes with Saroo and his brother are very good, and establish the strength of their bond. Sunny Pawar does a marvellous job as the lost boy, and Garth Davies films Calcutta with an earthy realism, as well as having a wonderful sense of empathy for the vulnerability of children. It’s also striking to see how uncommented upon a child alone on the streets of Calcutta goes. The dangers Saroo dodges feel genuinely threatening, and helps us invest emotionally for the rest of the film.

The moments that flash back to this do get overplayed later. Much as I initially liked Saroo hallucinating his brother and mother appearing around him in the streets of Melbourne, it’s a card that quickly gets overused. Like many of the ideas in this film, it gets hammered home a little too much. It’s that whole middle section, with poor Rooney Mara saddled with the thankless part of supportive girlfriend. You could have cut it down by 20 minutes and had the same impact. Garth Davies’ direction simply gets carried away with the lyrical sadness, to try and tug our heartstrings.

The problem is the most moving part of the film is the final sequence where we see the real people meeting in the streets of Khandwha. Nothing else in the film really measures up to this genuine emotion. Particularly after we’ve watched a man searching Google and behaving moodily for well over forty minutes. It’s a film that loses its way because it’s moments of emotional reality like that which make these stories truly profound – and a dramatisation can never provide that. With the film also unable to find a way to make the search as dramatic and engaging as the getting lost and being found, it also flounders in the middle, taking way too long to get us to the destination. It’s got its moments, but it’sa well assembled film that outstays its welcome.

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Dev Patel is the Chaiwala living the dream in Slumdog Millionaire

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Dev Patel (Jamal Malik), Freida Pinto (Latika), Madhur Mittal (Salim), Anil Kapoor (Prem Kumar), Irrfan Khan (Inspector), Ayush Mahesh Khedehar (Jamal [Child]), Tanay Chheda (Jamal [Teenager]), Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail (Salim [Child]), Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala (Salim [Teenager]), Runbina Ali (Latika [Child]), Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar (Latika [Teenager]), Saurabh Shukla (Constable Srinivsas), Mahesh Manjrekar (Javred), Ankur Vikal (Maman)

Re-watching Slumdog Millionaire, it’s surprising to think that back in 2008 this film was so garlanded with awards (EIGHT Oscars!) and heralded so quickly as a classic. While it’s a well-made and at times rather sweet (with a hard-edge) fable, it’s also seems slightly less unique and genre-defying than first appeared. Never mind a list of the greatest Best Picture winners, I’m not even sure it’s the greatest Danny Boyle movie. But saying this, it’s still a fine movie – and one I arguably enjoyed more re-watching it almost ten years on then when I saw it in the cinema.

Jamal Malik (Dev Patel) is an eighteen year-old Muslim, a chaiwala working in a Mumbai call centre. He enters the Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, hosted by egotistical Prem Kumar (Anil Kapoor), and to the astonishment of everyone is one question away from the ultimate prize of 20 million rubles. Arrested by the police and questioned before his final show, he explains via flashbacks how his experiences allowed him to answer each question. His life-story is one of danger and conflict in the slums and criminal underworld of India, tied closely to his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal) and their childhood friend Latika (Frieda Pinto), whom Jamal has loved his whole life.

Part social-realist tale, romance, family drama and fairy-tale, Slumdog’s main triumph is probably its ability to juggle half a dozen tones and genres so successfully. This is most strikingly demonstrated by fact that so many came out of a film that opens with its lead character being waterboarded and tortured by policemen, saying it was a brilliant feel-good movie! In fact, Boyle’s film is far more complex, touching on themes ranging from child exploitation and prostitution to gangland politics to social corruption, via murder, betrayal and mutilation. How does this a film crammed with this sort of material make you feel rather positive at the end?

Boyle’s, and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy’s, trick is to follow in the footsteps of that other great juggler of urban social comment and larger-than-life characters – Charles Dickens. Dickensian is perhaps the best word to describe Slumdog – it throws the viewer into the slums of Mumbai, glancing at this world with all the keen social commentary Dickens used to bring to Victorian London. As young children, Jamal and Salim are thrown in with a Fagin-like gang boss, while Latika develops an (admittedly much more gentle) Estelle-like connection with them both. Like David Copperfield, our hero moves from place to place (or frying pan to fire!), with an episodic charm, each event adding to the spectrum of his life. It works really well as it taps into a reassuringly familiar story structure that makes us feel narratively safe, no matter how much peril our heroes undergo.

What’s fascinating is placing this familiar material into (for us) a more exotic location. I suspect many American viewers watching were even less familiar with India as such a mixture of extreme wealth and poverty sit side-by-side so naturally (and again how Dickensian does that sound?). Anthony Dod Mantle’s cinematography is astounding for its energetic immersion in the streets of Mumbai –it’s like an explosion of Boyle’s high-octane, camera-shaking style seen in so many of his other films. It not only makes the film feel fresh and vital, it also manages to present India as something very different for those only familiar with the country as a Taj Mahal postcard.

The most compelling parts of the film are those in the first half that throw us into the Mumbai of Jamal and Salim’s childhood. Helped immensely by six terrific performances from the child and teenager versions of our three leads, these sequences (just over the first half of the movie) immediately involve the viewer in the fates and feelings of these characters. Perhaps because the film is shot in such an immersive style, you feel as if you have experienced the dangers (and occasional joys) alongside them, and developed a close bond with them. 

Despite the romantic plot of the movie, the true story is the jagged relationship, with its loyalties and betrayals, between the innocent, gentle dreamer Jamal and the more ruthless, realist Salim. The film charts the lengths they will go to protect and help each other – or sometimes in Salim’s case not. Salim is a fascinating character – easily the deepest, most conflicted of the three – who even as a child has a moral flexibility, happy to gain the benefits of a ruthless criminal lifestyle, while still having enough conscience to know what he has done with his life is wrong.

In contrast, the relationship between Latika and Jamal is far less complex. Frieda Pinto doesn’t actually appear until almost two thirds of the way into the movie – and she and Patel have only really one dialogue scene together to establish a romantic link. The romance between them is in fact the standard fairy-tale – two young friends as children who become unknowing sweethearts. The film relies on us being invested in their fates as children to want to be together, rather than building a link between two grown adults. This is the structure of a Prince Charming and a Princess in distress rather than grown-up storytelling – but it clearly works because it taps into our own fundamental first experiences of how stories work.

Dev Patel is a very sweet and highly engaging lead – and how could we not be immediately on the side of a pleasant, gentle young man whom we first see hanging from a ceiling with electrodes on his feet? Patel has a low-key decency about him that becomes more engaging the more you watch the film. Since most of his narrative function is to offer linking scenes to the far more dynamic and exciting flashbacks – and since the character of Jamal has very little real depth to him beyond “he’s a good guy” (again like a fairytale his innocence is untouched by events) – it’s quite a testament to his performance that you end up feeling as close to him as you do.

But it’s clear to me second time around the framing device of the Who Wants to be a Millionaire contest is the most disposable, and least interesting part of the movie. It does have the film’s most outright enjoyable adult performance, a swaggering, ego-filled turn from Amil Kapoor, but it’s still all much more predictable, obvious and functional than the adventures we see as our characters grow up. We know Jamal is going to keep getting things right (and thank goodness each question he answers, he learned the answers consecutively through his life! What a mess that might have been otherwise narratively!), so the fact that Boyle keeps what is essentially the same scene each time seeming interesting is quite something.


The gameshow however is the “quest” of this romantic fairy-tale. And fairy-tale is really what the film is: Jamal is there to try and find and save Latika. So in the end it doesn’t really matter that Latika hardly feels like a character, or that we’ve been given no real reason to think she and Jamal are in love other than the film telling us that they are, or that the plot of the film is really as flimsy as tissue paper. The film is a dream, a romantic fable. The genius of Boyle is to use a whole load of familiar, Dickenisan-style tropes to place this into a social-realist travelogue, a dynamite dance of flamboyant film-making techniques. So perhaps that is the point about Slumdog: on repeated viewings, like fairy-tales, its plot tricks and narrative sleight-of-hand become more obvious. But you get more of a respect for the confidence with which the trick is played.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)

Dev Patel is mathematical genius Srinivasas Ramanujan, struggling against prejudice in The Man Who Knew Infinity

Director: Matthew Brown

Cast: Dev Patel (Srinivasas Ramanujan), Jeremy Irons (GH Hardy), Devika Bhise (Janaki), Toby Jones (John Edensor Littlewood), Stephen Fry (Sir Francis Spring), Jeremy Northam (Bertrand Russell), Kevin McNally (Percy MacMahon), Richard Johnson (Vice Master Henry Jackson), Anthony Calf (Howard), Padraic Delaney (Beglan), Shazad Latif (Chandra Mahalanobis)

The British Empire. It’s a difficult slice of British history, and it undoubtedly contributed to contemporary attitudes of superiority that affected British people and their institutions. It’s these attitudes that form the central themes of The Man Who Knew Infinity, an effective story of a struggle against the odds. 

In the early 1900s, Srinivasas Ramanujan (Dev Patel) works in Madras as a junior accountant – but his superiors quickly realise his mathematical abilities far outstrip his mundane tasks, and encourage him to write to mathematics professors to bring his theoretical work to their attention. Ramanujan starts a correspondence with GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) of Trinity College, Cambridge, who invites him to England to explore his potential. Once there, Ramanujan quickly proves his genius but, despite Hardy’s support, he struggles to be accepted by the fellows and students of the college, who only see an upstart from the colonies.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is a conventionally structured biography – struggles personal and professional, success followed by setback and a final triumph combined with a bittersweet ending. It’s structurally nothing different from things you’ve seen before, but it’s told with calm, quiet, engrossing dedication, with unflashy direction, a solidly written script and some truly excellent acting. No wheel is reinvented, but it revolves with a highly enjoyable and heartfelt tenderness.

It’s a film that manages to present mathematics without using spurious real-world clunky metaphors, and gets a lovely feel for the hard work and theoretical study that go into mathematical theory. It also brilliantly communicates what the maths is about. I’m no theoretical mathematician (football stats are my limit) but even I could follow (just) why Ramanujan’s insights were so important and what they meant to the field of theoretical mathematics. The film has a real feel, not only for rhythms of academic work, but also the politics of academia (which needless to say are labyrinthine).

But the film’s main point is the resentment and outright racism Ramanujan must overcome. Played by Dev Patel with a quiet decency and modesty that only rarely bubbles over into bitterness, Ramanujan is constantly hit with everything from misunderstanding to contempt. His every achievement is met by questioning and doubt. His proofs must be demonstrated time and time again. To win the support and respect of his peers, he must constantly revise and revise his work, while the slightest slip is held up as proof his fraudulence or luck. 

If you do want to criticise the presentation of this, you could say that much of the campaigning and struggle for acceptance is championed by the establishment figure of Hardy – it’s he who does most to convert others, and who presents Ramanujan’s key theories to the Royal Society at the end. Stressing Ramanujan’s politeness and humbleness does have the downside of making him a slight passenger at times in his own movie.

But then it’s not just his movie, because this is a story of a deep, near romantic, bond that forms between the gentle Ramanujan and the shy and sensitive Hardy. Hardy, the film implies, was a man uncomfortable with emotional closeness, but he feels a huge bond with Ramanujan, having overcome similar class-based prejudice. The two men have a natural understanding, and support each other, finding themselves in perfect sync in their opinions on mathematics and their outlooks on life. In the nature of the British, nothing is ever said – but it’s clear that both men feel an intense personal connection that, quite possibly in Hardy’s case, mixes with a suppressed romantic yearning.


This relationship largely works so well because Jeremy Irons is quite simply fantastic as Hardy. Cast so often as superior types, here he gets to flex other parts of his arsenal as someone shy, timid, and sensitive. Hardy is so uncomfortable with personal friendships, he can rarely bring himself to look directly at other people. Irons sits on the edges of frames, or hunches and shrinks, his eyes permanently cast down. Saying that, he brings out the inner steel and determination in Hardy, his devotion as an advocate for Ramanujan. Irons is so shyly withdrawn, that the moments he allows emotional openness with Ramanujan, and most movingly with fellow mathematician Littlewood (played with a kindly good nature by Toby Jones), are wonderfully affecting. This might be one of Irons’ finest performances in his career.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is in many ways a conventional film, but performances like Irons’ lift it into something a little bit special. It’s a well-meaning and heartfelt film that embraces some fascinating concepts and also presents a story of triumph against adversity that feels genuinely moving and engaging. Filmically and narratively it’s very much by-numbers at times – but it hits those numbers so well, you’ll certainly have no complaints.