Director: Garth Davis
Stars: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara
There’s a particular corner of film buffery that steadfastly defers to the silent era as the medium’s true halcyon days, even now, some ninety years after our actors started talking to one another. Garth Davis’ Lion is not a silent film, not even nearly, but for nearly an hour by my estimate, it soars with the spirit of one. Dialogue in this stretch isn’t non-existent, but it is minimal. Without it, Davis proves resourceful and adept at kinetic and involving visual storytelling. It’s emotive work without tipping into anything that feels ultimately manipulative or hamfistedly telegraphed.
Here we follow the troubles of poor young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a boy living in poverty with his mother and older brother Guddu. They work to survive in a town in western India. One night at the train station, Saroo is separated from Guddu and seeks shelter aboard a seemingly decommissioned train. He wakes to find himself being transported against his will some 1,600 kilometers east to Calcutta. Disorientated and alone, Saroo discovers the hardships of living on the streets at a tender age until he is swept up by a rather miserable foster facility. A couple of years later he is taken in by a family in Tasmania; earnestly loving couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham).
For this entire run Lion seems to do little but excel, depicting a believable, unfiltered India without falling on the jangling globetrotting romanticism that Western cinema often tends toward when depicting the country. With dialogue all but erased as a tool, Davis has little Pawar carry the film with his “just two pounds a month” eyes, and he does a damned good job. The dangers are made self-evident and you get the sense that there’s some justification behind the film’s ground-swell reputation. This seems like a genuinely worthy outlier this awards season, one that’s snowballed on its own merit.
Then a funny thing happens; Lion abruptly leaps twenty years and everything changes. It’s like a trade-off. The dynamism of the first half completely falls away and we’re handed Dev Patel as the older version of Saroo. Patel has not been this good before. His performance as 20-something Saroo is charming and multidimensional and, to start with at least, grounded in the kind of reality that helped imbue that opening hour with its admittedly very different sensibility. Still – and crucially – it feels of a piece. For a little…
But in with him comes a very different movie. It’s talkier to start with, but it’s also pained, melodramatic, fond of pushing for the Kleenex moments. Kidman has been drawing applause for her performance here as Saroo’s sad adoptive parent, and while it’s a fine bit of work, it doesn’t feel like there’s enough here to quite warrant the superlatives. She’s not the only one. Wenham has little to do, and even the always-stellar Rooney Mara can’t quite lift late-period Lion out of the doldrums.
That propulsive feeling that Davis’ visual storytelling had in the first hour evaporates. The film starts idly sketching lines in the sand with its trainers like a teenager bored at the beach, pondering which move to make next. Saroo becomes obsessed with finding his home again after a revelatory sense-memory encounter, and he commits himself to using Google Earth to backtrack his journey. That’s the story here. This is the Google Earth Movie. And while the intention is far from being a high-class two-hour advertisement for a search engine, it sure starts feeling like one. And with the best will in the world, a sad man fiddling about with a map on his laptop in the middle of the night is exactly as interesting to watch as it sounds.
So you get these top drawer actors having a go at doing this true-life story justice, but it just feels like so much less than the flavoursome journey that brought you there. It feels as though this could all have been dialed back some, perhaps Upstream Color-style, to where a fluid and inherently cinematic portrayal of discovery doesn’t mean everyone has to gaze sorrowfully at one another, cry and have meaningful conversations about how great it is to adopt. The film’s resolution is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, cue some very worthy on-screen text, a neat reveal of why the film’s called Lion in the first place, and some touching real-life footage of everyone involved having a group hug.
I sound churlish and mean-spirited here, and that’s not really my intention. Lion is a contender this awards season and it has a positive message behind it about family being the people you need when you need them. Ironically, it’s the second half of the film that’s likely gotten it a seat at the big boy’s table, whereas it’s the first half that truly deserves a place there. A mixed experience to say the least, but surrender to its sentimentality and this is a notable little crowd-pleaser that intends to put a smile on your face and a tear on your cheek. One thing’s for sure, circumstances permitting, you’ll want to make a call home when you get out of the cinema. Just to check in.