Lion movie review: Not Dev Patel, it's Garth Davis' re-telling of a fascinating story that's the winner
Director: Gath Davis
Good luck keeping your eyes dry and fighting the lumps in your throat while watching Lion.
This is a solid tearjerker and a fascinating real life story that inspires, dazzles and emotionally wrangles you. It’s also a rare Hollywood film that doesn’t portray India as the land of snake charming mystic exotica.
Directed by Garth Davis who has earlier made a few episodes of the terrific series Top of the Lake, Lion follows the incredible real life story of Saroo (Dev Patel), a man in Tasmania trying to retrace his family origins in India. At the age of five after being adopted into a wealthy Australian family (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) Saroo’s life undergoes a dramatic change from the severe poverty of his upbringing and trauma of being lost at a railway station.
Dev Patel, though serviceable struggles to shake away the Slumdog Millionaire persona here. He's fairly restrained but the real life story of the character he plays is at every stage far more powerful than his performance, which makes you wonder if a lesser known face, someone who would disappear into the role, would have been a better choice.
Far more effective however, despite having a tiny screen time, is Priyanka Bose who plays Saroo's poverty stricken mother, and also Kidman who delivers her best performance since 1995's To Die For.
The first hour of the film is one of the most astonishing exercises of modern filmmaking I've seen, as we follow the 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) thrown into a nightmare of falling asleep on a train, ending up in a city he completely alien to, and not being able to tell people where he is from.
Davis beautifully captures the immediate shock and misery of a child torn away from his mother with no communication tools to return home. The film weaves through Calcutta’s slums and railway station backyard, thrusting Saroo deeper into the abyss of hopelessness. He even dodges shady people (Tannishtha and Nawaz) who may or may not have some nefarious plans for him.
The sheer unpredictability of this arc is nerve wracking and the restrained, frills-free direction sans loud dramatic music is not only an effective dose but also a wake up call for Indian audiences.
The second half of the film, which follows the grown up Saroo, is a slight disappointment not just because the climax is predictable, but also because the emotion seems unearned. There’s a subplot involving Saroo’s adoptive brother who has some psychological issues but it’s executed more as a check list item of dramatic conflicts rather than a serious conflict that Saroo and his parents need to deal with.
Faring much worse is a romantic angle between Saroo and his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) that doesn’t stir up any emotion despite Saroo having genuine troubles in communicating.
The romantic subplot doesn’t work mostly because there isn’t much time to explore it but it’s a fascinating theme to delve into. A person dealing with an emotional scar as big as this one would normally expect his partner to be a little more understanding and patient, and the inability of the partner to be able to get through emotionally or physically is a an endless fall into a deep void.
Perhaps a five part mini-series would have done Lion far more justice because it would give audiences the time to feel the weight of the issues at hand instead of giving them a fleeting glance at it.
In any case this is an effective drama with themes universal in nature. The most fundamentally basic human characteristic is to reach out to one’s family and there’s nothing more heartbreaking to see the bond ripped apart by forces alien to the human.
It’s also a film that is an ode to Google’s services – a technology that generally doesn’t get as much appreciation as it should. Bring some tissues to the theater because you’re going to need them during a montage of a computer screen and the dusty Khanwa landscapes in the third act.