Dev Patel

The Personal History of David Copperfield

21/01/20

I arrive at the cinema expecting great things. The trailer for Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield promises a rollicking ride through one of Dickens’ best loved tales, and I’m excited to see how it unfolds.

The promise is kept: it is a rollicking ride. A bit too rollicking, if I’m honest, careening  through the 350,000 word novel at breakneck speed. Well, it’s a lot to fit into two hours. There’s nothing here I’d lose – no padding or filler required – but I’d be tempted to add an extra thirty minutes to the running time, just to give the story space to breathe.

Dev Patel is the eponymous hero of his own life, and very good he is too, all genial affability despite his social-climbing and urgent need to impress. Born a gentleman, he’s forced into poverty when his widowed mother remarries, and his stepfather (Darren Boyd) takes against the boy. Young David is not too worried at first: the poverty he’s witnessed so far – visiting Peggotty’s quirky, loving family in their upturned boat/house – has given him a romanticised impression of the working person’s lot. A back-breaking job in a bottle factory soon disabuses him of this worldview, and he determines to find a way to live a better life.

Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie form a show-stealing double-act as David’s aunt Betsey Trotwood and her cousin Mr Dick respectively; in fact, there are almost too many perfectly-captured vignettes featuring too many wonderful actors. There’s Anna Maxwell Martin playing school mistress Mrs Strong – whoosh! There’s Benedict Wong as the ever-thirsty Mr Wickfield, and Rosalind Eleazar as his daughter, Agnes – whoosh! Daisy May Cooper’s Peggotty is warmly, wittily portrayed; Morfydd Clark’s Dora Spenlow a frothy, silly delight. I do like the sense of breathless chaos: the lack of deference to period drama genre-norms; the diverse casting that proves it can (and should) be done. There’s just no time to focus in on anything before it’s gone.

In short, each scene is beautifully rendered; each character cleverly drawn. But the story feels a little superficial, with none of the darkness or political poignancy of Dickens’ semi-autobiographical novel.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Lion

20/01/17

Lion is the true-life story of Saroo Brierley, a young man on a quest to find his family. The opening sequences depict a home life that, while far from idyllic – they are desperately poor: Saroo’s mother is a manual labourer, collecting rocks from dawn till dusk; Saroo and his brother steal coal to sell for milk; none of them can read or write – is nevertheless loving and nurturing.

What follows is startling and devastating: at the train station, five-year-old Saroo, told to wait for his brother, seeks a place to sleep on a decommissioned train. When he awakes, the train is on the move, and it doesn’t stop until it reaches Kolkata – 1000 miles away from Saroo’s home town. Saroo doesn’t speak Bengali, and he doesn’t know the proper name of his village, so he can’t tell anyone who he really is. It’s utterly heartbreaking to see the plight of the street kids he joins: the dangers they face, and the sheer numbers of them. (And Sunny Pawar, who plays young Saroo, is just delightful, all big eyes and vulnerability. He’s definitely one to watch.) Eventually, Saroo is placed in an orphanage and, from there, adopted by a kindly couple from Tasmania.

The second half of the film has a more sombre feel; it’s less immediately engaging, but compelling nonetheless. Adult Saroo, played by Dev Patel with customary aplomb, is an all-Aussie guy, a surfer with long hair and a promising career ahead. He has a girlfriend, a good relationship with his adoptive parents; things have worked out well for him. (Sadly, life has not been so kind to Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), the second boy adopted by the Brierleys, whose past demons won’t let him rest, and see him seeking solace in heroin.) But when Saroo spends an evening with Indian friends, buried memories are evoked, and he embarks on a lonely mission to find his long-lost family – using Google Earth to assist his search.

It’s a deceptively gentle tale of love and loss, offering insight into the moral and social complexities of adopting children from poorer lands. The film is not overtly political, and it doesn’t dwell on the causes of the poverty that lead to Saroo’s suffering. But neither does it shy away from showing us grim realities: this is one man’s story, a microcosm of a larger problem. It’s impossible not to feel moved and humbled. And very thankful that, for Saroo at least, it has a happy ending.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

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05/03/15

In 2011, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel made the cinema industry sit up and take notice. Here was a modestly budgeted film that raked in a hefty profit, but more significantly, it took it from the kind of mature audience that cinema usually fails to attract (i.e. not just 12 year old boys). So it was inevitable that sooner, rather than later, there’d be a sequel. And here it is, complete with a title that sounds worryingly like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It should be remembered that the original film was based on a rather good source novel by Deborah Moggach. This one appears to be an original screenplay, if by original, you mean borrowing an idea that famously appeared in an episode of Fawlty Towers. The kindest thing you can say about it, is that it’s a curate’s egg of a film, good in parts but those parts are few and far between.

Sonny (Dev Patel) is soon to marry his fiancé, Sunaina (Tina Desai), but first he plans to expand his operation by opening a second hotel and at the film’s inception, has gone to America to seek finance. In this enterprise he’s aided by the caustic Mrs Donnelly (Maggie Smith) her character slightly diluted from her original bitchy incarnation, but nonetheless still awarded most of the funniest lines. Meanwhile the usual suspects from Marigold 1 parade around having affairs with each other (Celia Imrie’s character, Madge, appears to have turned into a borderline good time girl,) while Evelyn (Judy Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighi) are still failing to connect, even when it’s perfectly clear that the two of them are simply made for each other. Into this hotbed of geriatric passion wanders Guy Chambers (Richard Gere) who might or might not, be the hotel inspector who can grant Sonny’s expansion plan. Before you can say, ‘Basil Fawlty,’ Guy has the hots for Sonny’s widowed mother and much (alleged) hilarity ensues. The problem is, that this is all so obvious, it might as well have been performed as a series of semaphore manoeuvres. A last minute ‘twist’ fails to offer any surprises whatsoever. And what’s happened to Sonny’s character? In Marigold 1, he was charming in a bumbling, hapless sort of way, but here he’s a car crash of a person who can’t open his mouth without offending everybody in the vicinity.

On one hand, TSBEMH deserves respect for daring to portray senior citizens as genuine characters with real lives and real concerns; on the other hand, points must be deducted for its outdated portrayal of India as a country that has somehow never escaped the bonds of colonialism. The first film managed to skirt skilfully around these issues, but this time it just wades on in, seemingly without thinking. The climactic wedding features lots of dancing and larking about, but also comes with a large dollop of sentimentality, which once again, the first film was careful to avoid.

So, second best by name and certainly second best by nature. Ideally, the film makers should have gratefully accepted their groundbreaking hit and moved on to another idea, but of course, the movie business will always respond to a hit by throwing more money in it’s general direction. Can we ‘look forward’ to The Third and Final Exotic Marigold Hotel? God, I hope not.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

Chappie

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18/03/15

Few directors have made such a triumphant cinematic debut as South African,Neill Blomkamp. His first feature District 9 was an assured production, a canny blend of science fiction and social commentary, that blasted his career into the stratosphere. His next offering, Elysium was rather less successful but nonetheless, very watchable, even when it suggested that a human being could undergo drastic bodily surgery without bothering to remove his T-shirt. Chappie, however, is a real dog’s dinner of a film. Not only is it incredibly derivative (it comes across as an unwieldy amalgam of Robocop and Short Circuit) it features clumsy scripting and some pretty terrible performances in key roles.

In a futuristic Johannesburg, everyday policing is carried out by ‘Scouts,’ humanoid robots, capable of making their own decisions. They are the brainchild of Deon (Dev Patel) a nerdy worker in a giant corporation who dreams of one day creating a true AI – a robot capable of independent thought and the appreciation of art and music. This idea is pooh poohed by Deon’s workmanlike boss, Michelle (Sigourney Weaver, with very little to do but sit behind a desk and look stern.) Deon’s success is also envied  by his macho associate, Vincent (Hugh Jackman), who has his own law enforcement project waiting in the wings and doesn’t mind taking a few shortcuts. When Deon runs some unauthorised experiments on a damaged Scout, the result is Chappie, (voiced by Blomkamp regular, Sharlto Copley) but things become complicated when Deon and his creation are kidnapped by a couple of local hoodlums, Ninja and Yolandi, who want to use the robot for their own nefarious purposes. They set about teaching Chappie how to be bad…

As in his previous films, Blomkamp is great at achieving a credible look in his futuristic world and the motion capture work employed here is of the very highest quality, so it’s a shame that the same care and attention hasn’t been lavished upon a credible script. Events pile haphazardly one on top of the other, but seem to follow no discernible logic, while the aforementioned Ninja and Yolandi are portrayed by a couple of South African rappers (they haven’t even bothered to change their names) who between them display the acting skills of… well, a couple of South African rappers. Frankly, they stink up the screen, which drives a fatal nail through the heart of the film.

The word is out that Blomkamp’s next project will be part of the Alien franchise, but he’ll have to work very hard indeed to rise above the scrappy disappointment that is Chappie. What a shame.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney