Lion (2017) (Review)

Positioning itself as another name in the award season game this year, Lion tells a true story of life, loss and love and is based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brieley and Larry Buttrose. Directed by Garth Davis and acting as his feature-length debut, it has already roared to great success across the award circuit, easily becoming one of the favourites behind La La Land, Manchester By The Sea and Moonlight for the Best Picture Oscar next month - but is it the real king of the Oscar season?

After the young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) follows his brother Guddu (Abhisek Bharate) to work, they become separated and Saroo finds himself locked on a train which departs before he can get off. Alone and frightened miles away in Calcutta, a faraway town in which an unfamiliar language is spoken, Saroo is forced to survive on his own before being picked up by the authorities and taken to an orphanage. When an Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and Joe (David Wenham) offer to adopt him, Saroo (Dev Patel) must adapt to this new way of life and later, make the decision to begin searching for his mother and siblings. An inspiring tale, no doubt, but how does it fare in its translation from reality to page to screen?

As expected, the cast here are solid all-round, with the two actors playing Saroo particularly standing out; Sunny Pawar excellently demonstrates the vulnerability of the boy who wanders the streets of Calcutta desperate for help, expertly expressing - through facial expressions and subtle characterisations - his loneliness and isolation, away from his family at such a young age. Dev Patel has a little more to work with as the older Saroo, who we join roughly twenty years later, and is absorbing as the central character trapped between his two families and identities.  Nicole Kidman is a commanding presence in this supporting capacity, effortlessly conveying the unconditional love a mother has for her son, biological or not. Rooney Mara also features in a glorified, thankless cameo role during the second half of the film as Saroo's friend-come-lover and although she is a terrific actress, their relationship is rather unnecessary to the story, meaning she is given very little of any interest to do and goes pretty much unrewarded. 

A tale of two halves, director Garth Davis and cinematographer Greig Fraser manage to reflect this well throughout the film: the Indian setting featuring some dull and darker colours to start with, conveying Saroo's isolation well, until it opens up once again during the climax where the colours seem to become brighter in front of our very eyes. Australia, on the other hands, is completely different: as Saroo enters this land for the first time, it is overwhelmingly scintillating with its open waters and picturesque beauty, descending into darker colours and tones as Saroo grapples with the idea of tracing back his family. It works really efficaciously in this way, with Davis discovering some really beautiful moments in each half that ensures the audience always has something to appreciate visually.  Luke Davies' screenplay is worth a mention to, as he crafts some wonderful pieces of dialogue demonstrated perfectly during a discussion between Sue and Saroo and her decision to adopt him rather than having their own children - even when the story struggles, the script features some beautiful, touching and poignant moments.

Lion tells an undeniably heartfelt and remarkable true story, often soaring to inspiration heights - but too often it feels cliched and struggles to live up to the groundbreaking genre entry it tries so hard to be and has been set up as. It struggles greatly in the jump from 'then' to 'now', with a twenty year gap suggesting that all about his past life has been forgotten in this period, until, that is, the appropriate moment to utilise new and developing technology comes; it doesn't help either that the film never seems to cover enough ground in its two hour runtime, with patches of emptiness often encouraging clock-watching. And, while extremely powerful in parts, the emotion feel a little too manipulated and drawn out, particularly in the second half, failing to occur as naturally as the filmmakers surely intended and thus meaning the tears do not always feel earned. It's flaws are frustrating, particularly given the first half of really sublime filmmaking, but there is simply not enough material to fill this dramatic space with continual gusto. A large chunk of the timeline is missing and we never really seem to make up for it along the way; one can't help but think that had this film been explored in a fashion similar to Manchester By The Sea (with intercutting flashbacks at regular intervals, rather than being presented in chronological order), we'd be far more swept up in the journey that we are in its current state.

Lion's warm and inspirational true story cannot be faulted or labelled as anything less than powerful or moving, yet the film doesn't always manage to capture this essence in its purest form and somehow loses twenty years of the story along the way, leaving the rest of the narrative a little thin on the ground and thus disengaging. It absolutely has its moments of real greatness, with a really solid start that renders a young Saroo's journey as a profound one - but the second half begins to undo that with too many coincidences and conventionalities that prevents the story's translations on to the big screen from being a wholly successful and effective one. It's a real shame that it cannot maintain the goodwill of its first half, as the general cast do a really tremendous job of making us feel sympathetic towards the characters they bring to life and the hard work put in by the writers and director is unquestionable. A few errors in this piece really has prevented it from ascending to greatness or award season worthiness, but I am absolutely sure there will be many more out there who are more impacted by this piece of filmmaking than I was.


Summary: Lion's powerful true life story does not always translate into a profound and inspiring film, despite terrific performances from the central cast, most specifically Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, and an engaging first half.

Highlight: This film confirmed how much I appreciate a 'where are they now, story update' pre-credits.