When you look at the marketing for the movie Lion, with its emphasis on Nicole Kidman crying in a chair, and Rooney Mara whispering to Dev Patel with deep and thoughtful philosophizing, and even that poster that you can see above (seriously, that thing is woeful), you may be forgiven for thinking that this true-life story is going to be the average Oscar bait.
In reality, however, this film does stand above the pack in that regard, at least for the most part. This is a beautifully shot, very well acted film with a strong emotional center. And not a dry eye left the nearly full theater I saw it in, either.
Lion tells the true story of Saroo, an Indian man who as a young child was seperated from his brother during a train trip. After being seperated, Saroo remained on his train for many days and ended up in Calcutta, 1600kms away from his home. Unable to find his way home, Saroo ends up in an orphanage from where he is adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley. Despite living a relatively affluent live in Hobart, compared to the world he came from, Saroo never really lets go of the memory of his mother and his brother, and despite only having limited references, an adult Saroo uses Google Earth to painstakingly retrace his steps and find his hometown in the hopes of reuniting with his family.
The film is split into two parts, more or less, and both parts feature some very good performances. The first part, featuring the child Saroo surviving on the streets of Calcutta, is led by young newcomer Sunny Pawar in the lead role. Child actors can sometimes backfire on a production, but it definitely paid off here as Pawar is engaging and heartbreaking as he fruitlessly searches the giant city for his mother, and avoiding some pretty abhorrent threats along the way.
It’s always something of a relief when a child actor is good. Because it can go horribly, horribly wrong….
The second part of the story, featuring an adult Saroo searching almost obsessively for his home, is the part that features the actors that people would recognize (and thus made the marketing campaign). A lot of buzz during the awards season has surrounded Nicole Kidman, who plays Saroo’s adoptive mother Sue. Kidman is stronger than she’s been in any role for a long time, but her screentime is not overly high – perhaps to the detriment of the film. Dev Patel is solid in the role of Saroo, and hopefully this performance will allow him more lead roles in the future. Of particular note is the way that Patel (a British actor of Indian heritage) nails the Australian accent without sounding like an imitation of Crocodile Dundee.
Rooney Mara, on the other hand, didn’t do much at all and had a bit of a nothing character. Playing Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy, it’s a role that you almost could have left out of the film altogether and still told the story. Her role in the film mostly consists of lying in bed with Saroo and quietly asking him about his search for his parents. She’s a sounding board, but not a very interesting one.
The movie itself works much better as well during the opening half. Saroo’s journey as a child is pretty heartbreaking, and with the strong performance, fantastic cinematography of the Indian landscape and a very well portrayed example of how scary a place like Calcutta can be for a small child, alone and unable to speak the language. Even though the audience is well aware how the portion of that story ends, it’s still fascinating stuff.
Once the adult Saroo begins his search, the film slows down a lot. Not enough to turn it into a bad movie, but for half an hour or so it goes from a great film to a just OK one, despite strong performances and dazzling cinematography, this time of the beautiful Tasmanian landscape. It’s just that Saroo’s search is repetitive by nature. He spends about 4 years searching on and off for his family, alternatively giving up and getting the inspiration to keep going, which does grate a little bit. But eventually, the film finds its footing to reach an emotional climax and the end result left me feeling elated, sad and helpless all at the same time – which is a bizarre feeling that needs to be felt to be believed.
A typical scene at the end of a Lion screening. Not pictured is the idiots at the back who missed why everyone else is crying because they were TOO BUSY TALKING!!!!!!
Overall, I’d highly recommend this film. One of the best movies out of Screen Australia in years, it does transcend that Oscar-bait tag that many have given it, and despite a weak spot in the middle it is a rewarding experience.
4.4/5 – A more than solid film that will reward moviegoers looking for an emotional story.
Another Bloody Critic would like to take this opportunity to remember the life and work of British actor Gordon Kaye, who died this morning. While Kaye made a number of small film appearances, most notably in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, it was on TV, and in particular the sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo (as beleaguered cafe owner Rene Artois) where Kaye earned most recognition. RIP Gordon Kaye.