Every year around November or December we get a slew of “Oscar-bait” movies that are released by the likes of The Weinstein Company to try and use melodrama, period locations, and heartwarming stories to win acclaim. That may sound very acrimonious but I assure you I love it when films like The King’s Speech or Lincoln or Selma come along and transcend their genre for the benefit of us all. The Weinsteins’ latest bet is on the heartwarming story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian-Australian man who begins to have recollections of his past in India when he was separated from his family and their Indian village. He found himself among the poor and destitute of 1980’s Calcutta, then an orphanage, and finally in the loving arms of an Australian couple determined to make a home for him across the ocean.
The film begins with a young Saroo, played by Sunny Pawar, an excellent find among child actors, searching for work with his brother. They become separated and young Saroo begins a trek to try and find them that soon clearly becomes too big a task for him to handle. Eventually he ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by the Brierley’s. After some time Saroo, played as an adult by Dev Patel, begins to recollect his forgotten time in India after eating a sweet snack that he enjoyed with his brother, played by Abhishek Bharate, when they were young. Like Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Saroo begins to recall his past in India, before his adoption, when he was separated from his family. Saroo is introduced by his college friends to Google Earth, and becomes determined to use it to find his village and return to his biological family. Meanwhile, his family and romantic relationships deteriorate in Australia as his girlfriend Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, feels him growing distant and distracted. At the same time his adopted parents Sue and John, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, respectively, are struggling to keep their family together.
Saroo’s quest becomes almost like a religious pilgrimage of sorts as the struggle to remember and search begins to mix the real world with his dreams. He follows memories of the past like a religious man would follow visions he has in a house of worship. Patel plays Saroo in his adult life with plenty of conviction. He portrays the character’s inner turmoil well and brings much-needed moments of heart and humor to the film. Mara as his girlfriend portrays a wider range of emotion, trying to be there for Saroo and understanding his quest while also putting reasonable limits to her tolerance for his distant stares. Kidman does a good job, particularly in the middle third of the film when she begins to see her family life unravel, and Wenham does well with his time as a warm and loving presence. Of the acting crop Patel and Kidman I would say deserve the most credit. Also worthy of credit are newcomer director Garth Davis, the film’s screenwriter Luke Davies whose given the task of condensing Saroo’s memoir A Long Way Home into the screenplay, and Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran, who composed the film’s score. Also cinematographer Greig Fraser who does an excellent job portraying the vast world that surrounds child Saroo and the smaller one that adult Saroo feels trapped in.
Where the films falters is largely in the final act as it seeks to keep Saroo’s search for his family going in a way that begins to become flat and uninteresting, which shouldn’t be a problem as his life begins to unravel due to his self-imposed isolation. The final act drags a little bit, while Sue’s character arc is rushed a little bit toward the end, but it does give her character one last chance to draw tears from the audience. That’s not to say that by this point in the film that all attempts to draw tears from the audience are ill-conceived, the moment Saroo meets his adopted parents brought tears to my eyes. But it’s near the end that the film falters and falls into traditional tearjerker territory. Much of this is because of the score, which is a welcome undercurrent to the story for much of the film, but by the end doesn’t allow the audience much breathing room or respite from the high emotion. There’s also a sense that Mara is largely given a traditional girlfriend part, with her talent slightly wasted in my opinion, although she plays her select scenes well with good emotion. The film also tries to deal with the idea of privilege, given that Saroo lives a much better life than those in his poor Indian village, but this is largely mentioned once and then forgotten.
In the end Lion is a worthy first picture by Davis, and the film itself is well-acted, well-written, and has good music. It’s mostly in the final act and the denouement that the film begins to falter as it rushes to its ending. They also take the time to reveal the film’s title but only through title cards before the film’s title is shown as it ends. That being said, Lion is a well done film that looks at a character trying to reconcile his past and his present in an emotive and moving way. It trudges into the territory of a tearjerking drama and succeeds for the most part in avoiding its trappings until it approaches its end. But when the end comes I don’t recall a dry eye in the house, so maybe there’s something to it. Anything that succeeds in the emotional response its seeking can’t be all bad. I look forward to seeing what Davis accomplishes in the future, and Lion is a good first step.