Dev Patel is bringing some of his brown-boy magic to David Copperfield
I wanted the best people for the parts, and why shouldn’t 100% of the acting community be available to me, says director Armando lannucci, who has adapted the Charles Dickens classic for the screen.Updated: Sep 14, 2019, 19:08 IST
When British Indian actor Dev Patel was first approached for his latest project, he asked, “Is it the magician?” He was referring to the American David Copperfield, while the film Patel was being offered to play the protagonist in is an adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic novel.
That movie, The Personal History of David Copperfield, is, obviously, set in Victorian England, the world the author inhabited and documented. But British director Armando Iannucci has provided his delightful version with plenty of spin, placing an actor of Indian origin at its heart, essaying the title role.
As the film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival or TIFF, the audience didn’t appear to care, greeting it with sustained applause. During a post-screening interaction, Iannucci explained this adventurous casting decision saying he wanted it to be representative of “who’s around us now and not feel terribly old fashioned.” It also gave him access to a larger roster of talent: “I just wanted the best people for the parts, and why shouldn’t a 100 per cent of the acting community be available to me?”
- Dev Patel arrived at the Toronto International Film Festival as a gangly 18-year-old. And also arrived on the international film scene, as he starred in Danny Boyle’s multi-Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire (above).
- A fairly fallow period followed, but by 2011, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel revived his career. He returned to TIFF in 2015, playing the maths savant Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity. Since then, the now-bearded Patel has been a fixture as the festival.
- In 2016, he received his sole Academy Award nomination so far, in Lion, which had its world premiere at TIFF. Last year, he doubled down on Toronto, appearing in Hotel Mumbai, based on the terror attacks of 26/11, and the thriller from Michael Winterbottom, The Wedding Guest, for which Patel also assumed the role of producer.
Patel described this as a “perfect example of colour-blind casting.” And argued it made the film more authentic: “Dickens is talking about old London, it’s about class struggle, rich and poor – there would have been black-skinned and brown men and women walking around those streets inhabiting the roles of the butchers and all sorts of people up and down the scale. So, I actually think it makes it a richer experience.”
Iannucci, given his flair for comedy as seen in previous project, the excellent Death of Stalin, allows hilarity to allay the grey drear of a typical Dickensian environment, delivering a film for which TIFF’s co-head Cameron Bailey used the adjectives “rollicking” and “wild”. Iannucci purposefully bypasses the seriousness of the costume dramas of this genre, and underscores the “hilarious scenes” of the novel.
While social problems besetting Victorian England defined Dicken’s oeuvre, he was a racist child of his times. Audrey Jaffe, University of Toronto English professor, surmised, “His reformist tendencies mostly involved English issues, not colonial ones, and he doesn’t have a great record on colonialism - was really in line with many of the pro-English, nationalist ideas of his time and place.” But, she added, “he was a great believer in the power of performance, and so I think would have found this idea interesting.”
Iannucci’s endeavour is subtly subversive. As Wan Kay Li of the Toronto-based York Center for Asian Research, said, having Patel play Copperfield “disrupts the orderly world of the novel”, which was written in 1850 at the height of the Victorian era. “India plays an important role in structuring the world in Dickens’ novel. It is featured prominently at the beginning of the novel, but in typical Dickensian caricature, to highlight the orderly, moral, rational Victorian world,” she said. This version is payback, in a sense, as she said it is “making the othered world in the original novel centrestage in the film.”.