UK Release Date: 13th January 2017
Runtime: 118 minutes
Director: Garth Davis
Writer: Luke Davies
Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Divian Ladwa
Synopsis: Years after getting aboard the wrong train and being carried miles away from home, a young man adopted by an Australian family uses Google Earth to track down his biological family in India.
I don’t really like the term ‘Oscar bait’. It’s all too easily wheeled out at this time of year as a lazy, unconstructive dismissal of any film that tugs at the heart-strings and features big, grandstanding performances. However, in the case of Garth Davis‘ Lion, the words might be justified. It’s a film that feels machine-tooled to extract tears from the faces of audience members and silverware from the cabinets of Academy voters, as if it was made on a production line of prestige weepies. Davis takes a compelling true story that is genuinely stranger than fiction and converts it into middle of the road cinema.
Indian youngster Saroo (Sunny Pawar) inadvertently boards the wrong train one night and falls asleep, finding himself hundreds of miles away from home in Calcutta. After spending time on the streets and in an orphanage, Saroo is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham). Two decades later, Saroo (Dev Patel) and his adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) have gone their separate ways, with Saroo studying hospitality and starting a relationship with Lucy (Rooney Mara). A conversation at a party encourages him to seek out his family and, with the help of Google Earth, he starts researching in an attempt to finally find home.
Lion is structured as a film of two clear halves, with the first part of the movie focusing on newcomer Sunny Pawar as Saroo on the streets of India. Pawar is a hell of a discovery and conveys the perfect mixture of cheeky charisma and innocence to make the role work. The film’s strongest moments see the diminutive Pawar all alone among the bustling, busy streets of Calcutta or alone in the expansive landscapes of India without anyone to care for him. There are moments of genuine heartbreak at his plight, but unfortunately this aspect of the film falls away when it reaches its middle point.
Dev Patel takes over the lead role for the second half of the film and, although good, his performance is hamstrung by a syrupy script that lacks the edge of the first act. Patel is believable and likeable as we meet him and there are charming moments with Rooney Mara’s under-written love interest. However, Lion loses its way as Patel’s character becomes a reclusive hermit, devoted only to his Google Earth search for the small village he once called his home. This is where Luke Davies’ script slackens, weaving towards the inevitable sentiment of the finale, which doesn’t have the impact it seems to want.
There are some interesting supporting performances, from Mara’s underused turn to some great work from Nicole Kidman. Her character is intriguing and Kidman is solid in the role, but there’s a sense throughout that Lion is overtly positioning her for an awards nomination, with which she was duly rewarded at the Oscars. One particular, tear-stained monologue might even have had an emotional impact had it not been so clearly devised to wow awards season voters. Lion is a film consistently and infuriatingly calibrated to be a prestige picture, which constantly gets in the way of its storytelling.
The true story of Saroo Brierley is a remarkable one, but it’s one that is rather lacking in cinematic value, right up to the immensely cheesy reveal of the title’s significance. It’s predominantly based around a man clicking around on a computer, which is something the film tries to get around by the cliché-ridden idea of a board of paper and bits of interlinking string, which is inevitably torn from the wall in a fit of rage. Lion simply doesn’t have enough ideas to lift its concept from the real world to Hollywood and, as a result, it’s a saccharine confection that fails to leave much impact beyond handsome cinematography.
Pop or Poop?
It’s unfortunate that Lion doesn’t work because, on paper, it’s a great story with a dynamite cast. The finished product from Garth Davis, though, feels weighed down by its reliance on cliché. The performances are good across the board, but the actors struggle to elevate material that never quite seems as good as it should be. Only young Sunny Pawar covers himself in glory.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.