“Lion” is based on the true story of five year old boy Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a child who gets lost on a train in India and winds up halfway across the country. Unable to find his older brother, mother and mispronouncing the name of his village (he can’t speak or understand the local big city dialect), Saroo can’t get back home and is forced to live on the streets. Facing a life of loneliness in an abusive orphanage, he is soon adopted by kindhearted Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham). Fast forward twenty years and Saroo (Dev Patel), still overcome by curiosity and unanswered questions, decides to track down his real family and find out what happened to his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose).
Pawar, who plays the role of Saroo as a child, is marvelous. His performance by far is the best thing about the movie, and it’s solely because of him that I had such a strong emotional investment in the story within the first 5 minutes. Patel has been lauded here too, but I didn’t find anything particularly surprising about his solid performance (it’s your standard dramatic, teary-eyed work). Kidman phones in yet another mundane signature performance that includes staring into space, shedding a single tear, delivering sharp-tongued lines under duress with a laughable intensity, and generally playing the part of a put-upon woman (in this case, the put-upon adoptive mama bear) who only speaks in hushed whispers.
The first half of “Lion” is pretty great cinema. It’s beautifully shot (by DP Greig Fraser), gracefully scored (by composers Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran) and directed (by Garth Davis). It’s heart wrenching and is sure to elicit a strong emotional response from all but the most insensitive viewers. The heartbreaking scenes of poverty and loss are done extremely well. Once the young Saroo becomes lost and thousands of miles away from home, the film touches on the horrors and dangers of living as a homeless child on the streets of India (including alarming kidnappings by leaders of child slavery rings, all with the help of the local police).
At its halfway point, the film grows increasingly weary as it spins its wheels with too many tame and pointless time fillers (let’s watch Patel fixate on his computer and search Google Earth again), and more scenes are wasted on nothing much at all rather than plot advancers or poignant insights.
The one aspect of the second part of the film that actually does work is the budding romance between Saroo and Lucy (Rooney Mara). There’s a natural, effortless chemistry and rapport between these two actors; so much so that I wish they had more scenes together. There’s also a vague subplot about Sarro’s adopted brother and his struggle with mental illness that feels as though it was added to the story simply because it’s true.
At times it’s unbelievable that this is actually based in truth but yeah, it really happened. It’s a great story to make into a film, make no mistake: it’s tragic yet uplifting — something the filmmakers obviously saw as a goldmine to extort the audience’s empathy while simultaneously yanking on their heartstrings with a forceful glee.
The predictable (and again, true) ending made me angry; not because of the bittersweet and slightly sappy core message of determination, love and acceptance, but because of the frustrating apparent need for the filmmakers to manipulate my emotions in the most overt manner possible.
In the end, “Lion” sadly feels like nothing more than a strained, contrived tearjerker. All of those genuine emotional responses that the film elicited from me early on swiftly disappeared.
The wonders of modern technology help reunite a man with his long-lost family, more than two decades later in “Lion.”
Young Saroo (played as a child by the fantastic Sunny Pawar) lives in poverty in a small village in India with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) and his younger sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki). After Saroo falls asleep on a train during an outing with Guddu, Saroo finds himself lost in the massive city of Calcutta, unable to get back to his family when he is unable to tell the police his mother’s name or the name of his home village.
After living on the streets of Calcutta, Saroo is adopted by kindly Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) and raised by them in Tasmania. Having grown in a privileged house to be a man, Saroo (played as an adult by Dev Patel) can’t shake his urgent need to find his estranged mother and brother and tell them that he’s okay. Saroo becomes obsessed with looking for his home village by using Google Earth and alienates himself from his friends and family in the process.
Based on a remarkable true story, “Lion” grapples with difficult issues of identity and family ties in a world that can at various times be both dispassionately cruel and astonishingly kind. That said, it isn’t quite the awards-bait film that the industry would have you believe.
Kidman, for one, turns in a reliably good performance but it’s nothing special. Is it just me, or have almost all of her performances over the last 5 years consisted largely of her whispering? I’ve always been an admirer of her as an actress but it seems like its been ages since she’s ventured outside of her whispery safe zone. Patel is good but, at least from my perspective, a little too one-note to be seriously considered for an acting award.
The one standout performance belongs to Pawar, who carries the first segment of the film (which is also the most compelling) on his able shoulders. Indeed, it’s when the film fast-forwards to modern day that it loses most of its momentum; the story of Saroo as an obsessed, moody and manic adult is much less interesting than his life as a child on the streets of Calcutta.
I liked “Lion” but it’s not nearly as good as it wants or pretends to be.