Lion is exactly half of one of the best films of 2016, and half an exciting story that the filmmakers simply fail to make exciting. Like Moonlight, they’re separated into two distinct acts, set twenty years apart, for us to enjoy for their own merits.
First, the good stuff: rural five-year-old Indian boy Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in squalor with his mother and young sister (Priyanka Bose), and steals coal from freight trains with older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to afford milk.
But when Saroo accidentally falls asleep at the train station – and takes refuge inside a empty train carriage – he ends up taking an inadvertent days-long journey to Calcutta.
Saroo doesn’t know where he came from, and he’s traveled so far within India he doesn’t even speak the (Bengali) language of those in the train station. His months-long journey in Calcutta takes him from the station, onto the streets, into the arms of strangers – some less helpful than others – until he eventually finds refuge in an orphanage.
Still, the police cannot determine Saroo’s origin, or help him get back to his family.
The story of how this five-year-old boy survives the streets of Calcutta and eventually makes his way back to his family could have easily been one of the best Hollywood films of 2016.
But Lion is not a Hollywood film. It’s a true story, and five-year-old Saroo doesn’t make his way home. Instead, he’s sent to Australia and adopted by parents played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham.
Flash-forward twenty years, and Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) enrolls in hospitality college in Melbourne, meets the lovely young Lucy (Rooney Mara), and discovers advancements in technology that might help him finally reconnect with his family.
That entails, in short, a lot of inner turmoil in Saroo, who withdraws from his friends and family, and ensuing tension between him and Lucy and Mom. And lots of Google Earth. Minutes of unending screentime looking at maps and drawing lines and trying to remember what things might have looked like from above.
This probably worked on the page, in Saroo Brierley’s own book A Long Way Home, which he co-wrote with Larry Buttrose. And it might have worked here, if we had a better explanation of what exactly Saroo is doing, and understood the particulars of his search. But we don’t, and the film seems to just kick around dirt until the expected emotion-filled finale.
We complain about movies failing to stick to the facts, but here’s a case where some screenwriter invention might have helped the movie. Give us a journey from A to B to C. Instead, we get a lot of Google Earth and a plane ride.
But for that first half, and the conclusion, Lion is a rewarding, poignant, even devastating experience.
Lion (deservedly) scored Oscar nominations for Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Original Score (by Dustin O’Halloran & Hauschka) and Cinematography (Greig Fraser, who also shot Rogue One, beautifully captures locales across both India and Australia), along with Supporting Actor/Actress nods for Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman.
Patel and Kidman are fine, but their work here is mostly relegated to the lesser half of the movie. The real acting highlights in Lion are young Sunny Pawar and Priyanka Bose, whose performances are unforgettable.