Directed by: Garth Davis.
Written by: Luke Davies based on the book by Saroo Brierley.
Starring: Dev Patel (Saroo Brierley), Sunny Pawar (Young Saroo), Rooney Mara (Lucy), David Wenham (John Brierley), Nicole Kidman (Sue Brierley), Abhishek Bharate (Guddu Khan), Divian Ladwa (Mantosh Brierley), Priyanka Bose (Kamla Munshi), Deepti Naval (Saroj Sood), Tannishtha Chatterjee (Noor), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Rawa).
The odd thing about Lion is that the reason the film was made – the part of the true story that inarguably garnered the attention of filmmakers – is easily the least interesting aspect of the film. Lion tells the true story of Saroo Brierley – who as a poor 5 year old in India, accidentally gets on an empty passenger train, which travels for two days with him on board. Eventually he ends up in the busiest train station in the world, unsure of where he is, how he got there, unable to speak the language, or even communicate the name of his hometown. He lives on the streets for months, eventually being taken to an orphanage. While they do try and find his family, they are unsuccessful – and eventually, a kindly couple for Australia adopt him – and raise him. He has a good life, but 25 years later, his past still haunts him, so he decides to chuck everything aside and try and find his family – using, you guessed it, Google Earth. And, of course, had he not found them, this movie would never have been made. That’s a sad thing, because honestly the Google Earth part of the story is far and away the least interesting. Much of the second half of the movie involves the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) looking like he has slept in days, as he stares at computer screens, and makes marks on his large, serial-killer style map. That’s boring. The story of a child lost in Indian, and trying to assimilate in Australia, while still longing for a connection to his home country? That’s an interesting story. Too bad the filmmakers didn’t quite realize that.
To be fair, I do think the filmmaker behind Lion do recognize that there is a lot of drama in the events other than Saroo’s Google Earth searches. The entire first half of the movie in fact is about Saroo as a child – played in the film’s single best performance by Sunny Pawar. Pawar has a happy, open face – which does half of the acting for him. As he goes from one bad situation to the next – barely escaping danger multiple times, you really do worry for the kid, even though you know he’s going to make it. The scenes in India can be harrowing, but often, they do offer hope – mainly because Saroo maintains a mostly hopeful outlook. When he gets to Australia, and starts to bond with his adopted parents (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), it really is quietly touching. In total, the first hour or so of Lion is quite strong.
Unfortunately, the second half of Lion doesn’t live up to what happened before. Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, has essentially become Australian – and as portrayed in the movie, barely even thinks of India anymore. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he becomes obsessed with trying to figure out where he is from. He pretty much destroys his relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara – one of the best actresses in the world, completely wasted here, as all she is given to do is stare at Patel with sympathetic longing). Kidman fares slightly better as his adopted mother – although she spends much of the second half in tears, over not only Saroo’s behavior (not because she disapproves of it, but because he has shut her out, and won’t let her see what he’s doing), but also that of her other adopted son from India. Kidman does get a long monologue where she explains herself – and because Kidman is a great actress, she nails it – even if the monologue doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the film. For his part, Patel tries gamely to make the adult Saroo interesting – but there isn’t much he can do.
Ultimately, Lion leads to the cathartic, emotional climax we all know it has been building towards for the entire movie. You’d have to be made of stone not to be moved by those closing moments – and I think first time director Garth Davis does an admirable job not leaning too heavy on false sentiment – his film doesn’t need it.
Yet I cannot help but feel that Lion needed something else – something to make it move beyond a merely okay, inspirational drama. Perhaps the film could have focused on Saroo’s family back in India – and what they were doing in the 25 years Saroo was gone (or, at the very least, what they did to try and find him). It’s an odd thing to have so much explained in end credits title cards – including a tragically ironic one about the day Saroo disappeared. Perhaps allowing Saroo’s birth family to be characters in the film could have allowed the film to open up a bit – or at least, provided us with less scenes of Patel staring at a computer. Lion is a remarkable, almost unbelievable true story – and yet I’m not entirely convinced the filmmakers found the best way to tell it.