Ask anyone to tell you about Dev Patel, and you’ll get a different answer: “That guy from Skins”, “The boy from Slumdog Millionaire”, “Oooh, that nice young man from those hotel films”. Everyone will probably follow this up with the same question – “What else has he done?” – because no actor his age has quite managed to hit it off with so many demographics at once. Whilst different movies have resonated with different audiences, Patel’s natural charisma shines through in every performance, often making him the bright spot of films that fail to deliver in other regards (I’m looking at you, Chappie).
While Patel’s career began properly with his role as one of the first generation of teens on the Channel 4 hit Skins, he first started making a name for himself on the school play circuit, after his GCSE performance as a child in the Beslan School siege earned him full marks and moved the audience (and a visiting examiner) to tears. Dev caught the acting bug and, two auditions later, found the role of Anwar Kharral specifically written for him. Despite his lack of professional experience, his laid-back charm shone through in his natural performance, and he was a big part of making Skins the sensation it was back in its early years.
For most of the cast, Skins was their breakout hit, but it was his next role that really catapulted this 17 year-old into stardom. Slumdog Millionaire threw Patel, and his costar and girlfriend Freida Pinto, into the public eye as the film barreled its way to eight Academy Awards and $377 million at the box office. While none of those Oscars were for Dev specifically, he did receive a Critics’ Choice award for his rich and affecting performance as Millionaire contestant Jamal Malik, as well as nods from BAFTA and the Screen Actors Guild.
His next award nomination? A Razzie for Best Supporting Actor in The Last Airbender. Not even Patel’s charm could save the mess that was M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation of the hit animated series Avatar, although some considered Patel’s performance as petulant teenage firebrand Prince Zuko to be one of the better aspects of the now legendarily reviled movie. Ultimately The Last Airbender swept the Razzies as Slumdog did the Oscars – although, continuing the strange symmetry, on neither occasion did Patel take home an award for himself. At the age of 20 Patel had found himself in one of the best movies of the decade, and one of the worst.
In 2012, Dev Patel returned to both film and TV, and it’s here we can start to spot a pattern emerging in his work: most of his filmography consists of either unexpected hits or unfortunate disappointments. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was one of the year’s biggest releases in the UK, largely due to the growing market for films aimed towards older audiences, now referred to as the ‘grey pound’ after a term used by Patel’s character in the film. Meanwhile, although it wasn’t a failure on the level of Studio 60, Aaron Sorkin’s much-hyped return to the small screen with HBO’s The Newsroom was ultimately a self-indulgent disappointment. However, Dev yet again put his relentless charm to good use, elevating his IT whiz Neal Sampat beyond ‘Asian nerd’ cliches and making him more than just an opportunity for Sorkin to address ‘youth issues’ such as Occupy Wall Street and Wikileaks.
This trend continued into 2015, when The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel managed to yet again top the UK box office, while retaining the fun, relaxed vibe that made the first film so surprisingly appealing. On the flipside, Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie failed to make an impression, offering more robot snores than robot wars as Patel and a mullet-sporting Hugh Jackman went head-to-head over the titular gangster droid. Despite some clear issues (Die Antwoord try their best but seem clearly out of their depth, and the muddled characterisation doesn’t do them any favours), Chappie is worth a second chance; Sharlto Copley is fantastic and Patel, Jackman and the eternally appealing Sigourney Weaver are as watchable as ever.
Alongside these blockbusters, Patel has also appeared in a few smaller flicks, including 2014’s underappreciated The Road Within. A remake of the German film Vincent Wants to Sea, it’s worth watching for the committed performances given by Dev and his costars Zoe Kravitz and Robert Sheehan, a fellow Channel 4 alum (known for his memorable role as Nathan in Misfits). Dev’s portrayal of a young man with severe OCD is understated and powerful, as his character walks a tricky line between unlikable and heartbreakingly sympathetic.
Regardless of the role, you can count on Dev Patel to deliver an engaging and memorable performance, even if the rest of the film fades from memory. Eternally charismatic and endlessly relatable, he’s proved more than able to hold his own against veteran greats like Dames Maggie Smith and Judi Dench despite his relative youth. Patel deserves an opportunity to show Hollywood that he’s more than just the charming young man on the sidelines. The Man Who Knew Infinity (another project expected to be a hit with the ‘grey pound’ crowd) looks set to be the next hit in the string of period-drama biopics about great mathematicians, and it could be just the role he needs to move forward. Later this year we will also see Dev alongside Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara in the intriguing Lion, in which he stars as a young man who finds his birth parents through Google Earth. Perhaps 2016 will be the year Dev Patel breaks his cycle of shining through mediocre films, and moves on to bigger things. Who knows, maybe he’ll put his black belt in taekwondo to good use one day; he’d make a pretty damn interesting James Bond.