Lion is an emotional retelling of an amazing real-life story, propped up by some good performances, though it’s hampered by unnecessary dramatic additions that feel shovelled in.
Saroo Munshi (Sunny Pawar) lives in near-poverty in India with his brother Gudu and mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), but one day loses Gudu at a train station, and ends up thousands of miles away in Calcutta. Rescued from the perils of street life by an orphanage, he is adopted by Australians Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), and 20 years later, adult Saroo (Dev Patel) uses Google Earth (yes, really) to try and find out where he came from, and how to find his original family.
I remembered hearing about Saroo’s quest when the news got hold of it a few years ago – it’s an incredible, almost unbelievable and touching story that makes you feel good about people (and technology, surprisingly). The film does a great job of carrying the emotion across, with a conclusion that nearly got to my stony heart. Director Garth Davis and scriptwriter Luke Davies take Saroo’s autobiographical account and (mostly) bring it respectfully to screen, and while the way the film is constructed makes it feel quite slow, you realise why, with the first and then second stage of his life given time for dramatic development, and the characters room to breathe and appear more flawed and real.
Unfortunately, there are fudged parts and characters that feel false. Where reality probably was more prosaic (and certainly less coincidental), cinema takes a dramatic jump – Saroo’s revelation toward the end is happenstance, when he happens to be at his lowest ebb. This more than anything made me roll my eyes, given so much of his story is fantastical anyway. Earlier parts of his childhood surviving in Calcutta were also quite odd, as I don’t know how much the real Saroo remembers – what is shown is terrifying, and he may well have faced these horrors of Indian inner-city life, but some of it feels too cinematically dramatic! In essence, I’d want to see what he really recalled in the book this is based on before I believe some experiences happened.
Where the filmmakers do succeed however is the setting – electing to actually shoot a movie set in India IN India, and Davis – along with cinematographer Greig Fraser – paints the country in many different lights and shades (literally and metaphorically). From the rocky, arid village Saroo grows up in through to the stark vistas of his accidental journey, we move to the congested, decaying Calcutta, the movie doing a fantastic job of showing the diversity. The same goes for Tasmania in Australia, where he moves to and which provides a complete tonal contrast, with lush forests and ocean almost a total counterpoint. The sweeping and emotional score from Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran sweeps in at the right moments for most impact, though a Sia song right at the end (at arguably the emotional peak, just as the credits begin) is tone-deaf and inappropriate.
I felt that both actors playing Saroo – young Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel – were excellent. Pawar in particular is another fantastic child actor totally invested in his role, and deserves all the acclaim – he makes you feel the kid’s sorrow and sadness and smile at his optimism and happiness. Patel in turn adds subtle, adult layers to his young man haunted by the family he lost, struggling to reconcile two halves of one life (and with a good Aussie accent). Kidman is the other standout performer as Saroo’s adoptive mother, with just a few scenes here and there showing her Sue as a loving, principled woman nevertheless finally struggling with her life choices.
Wenham (Faramir from Lord of the Rings) gives an understated, calm and non-showy performance almost perfectly capturing a realistic ‘dad’ in action – great examples include little scenes with nonsense small talk between father and son, skirting around the real issues before an emotional chat. Rooney Mara however is that actor that suffers from the aforementioned “falseness”. As Lucy, Saroo’s girlfriend from university, she initially offers a fun and tangible character, but in some of the ways that she comes in and out of his life, I thought the character was short-changed and felt false.
This goes back to my earlier point about cinematic devices – I would imagine that the real-life Lucy (should she have existed) would have made one of two key decisions the character makes, with the rest poorly-judged and timed for prime emotional manipulation. This wouldn’t be a problem in a fiction, but it makes you doubt the movie when it’s supposed to be based on real life. A lot of minor characters pop in and out, most memorably the damaged Mantosh, Saroo’s adoptive brother, played with sleazy anguish by Divian Ladwa, and who you would have thought might have played more of a role given his tense position in the family. Many bit-part players in India flit by, though Bose’s performance as Saroo’s mother is slight yet powerful, particularly come the film’s end.
If you’re someone who watches Long Lost Families and bawls your eyes out, this is the film equivalent, and just made for you to watch. For everyone else, it’s well-acted and quite touching, a heartfelt film telling an incredible story with respect, though it loses points for surrendering to standard weepie and redemptive movie tropes.