Warning: Lion is a two-hanky movie; it will have you bawling unless you swallow really cold ice-cream to encourage a brain freeze, or by driving a nail into your palm. That might get you through the first third of the film, but I guarantee by the end you’ll be blubbing like a school kid who’s lost his playtime piece.
I knew it was a tear-jerker so I took a handkerchief. I should have taken a warehouse of Kleenex tissues.
The movie is in three parts, it begins as it should with the young Saroo at home and then lost to his mother; the centre concerns itself with Saroo in his early twenties adopted by an Australian mother and father; and finally Saroo searching for his family back in India.
The middle section is the weakest. It’s over-long, frequently repetitive, and uneven. It holds your attention because you are keen to see how Saroo manages to work out where in that vast continent called India he might have lived, but it sags lopsided when trying to show us the complicated relationship with his surrogate mother, in particular, his troubled adopted brother, and his new-found girlfriend, played by the redoubtable Rooney Mara. To be honest, it just skirts on the right side of pseudo psychology.
The film’s Aussie centre – Hobart in Tasmania – exists because this is a film based on a true story backed by the Australian Film Fund. It also has Nicole Kidman as the adopting mother. You can’t have a movie star give a film box office legs offered only a single scene. She has to get space to emote: express joy, anger, and weep to show her acting chops.
I have not read the book on which the film is based, A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, but by all the reviews I have read it’s a riveting story not at all well told. If that is true, the film under the confident hand of director Garth Davis elevates it well beyond the maudlin and the sentimental.
In a nutshell the film asks: How do those of us living in relative comfort square our good luck with the lot of the rest of the world? I am not sure it manages to answer that question but it does prick our conscience.
The author, Saroo Brierley, was born in a small Indian town, then lost at the age of five tender years of age in Kolkata, and after various adventures in survival in an adult world full of dangers, got adopted and raised by a pair of well-heeled Aussies.
Saroo did not manage to return to India to seek his birth family until a quarter century later, and the profound sorrow of those years – and the guilt of having been given a life of plenty and opportunity denied to them – permeates the whole film, haunting the adult Saroo every day, and often every waking night.
He is constantly jolted by images of his adoring mother collecting rocks in a quarry to make ends meet, and his elder brother who loved him as much.
Like Slumdog Millionaire this is a commercial film. Nobody should expect interior and moral complexity. As the story unfolded I kept wishing a truly poetic director had been its guide, not that Aussie Garth Davis does a bad job, his direction is sure enough, but he often misses out on the subtle and the silent.
A poetic vision would have dumped many of the Australian sequences in preference for Saroo’s childhood, and what was left of scenes in his Australian home shed of their extraneous dialogue. A master such as Satyajit Ray might have had camera shots lingering on faces and emotions a few beats longer than we are given, making us feel we are at one with the people we see on the screen. The film’s middle is far too busy leaving little time for the last act which seems overly compressed in comparison. There would have been time to see more of Saroo’s life with his mother, and how she eked out an existence between a hard life and starvation.
In real life as in the film’s reconstruction, five-year-old Saroo gets separated from his older brother at a train station near their remote village. He holes up in out-of-service train to sleep, but awakens locked in the carriage barreling east 1500 kilometers distance. When the doors are unlocked at a station packed with the morning’s commuters he is in a strange crowded land with a language he does not speak, Bengali. He speaks Hindi, a conflict that isn’t developed far enough.
Davis throws us a neat clichéd, one-note montage of everyday folks brushing poor Saroo off balance left and right – some even slapping him for getting between their feet – as he tries to make his way into the metropolis. Saroo is harassed and shouted at, at every turn.
Still, the lost-in-India scenes are compelling, intimidating and beautiful all at once, as you would expect with anything shot in that iridescent land of the tiger and the peacock. The trick is, however, to avoid the seduction of showing poverty set against the warm glow of the evening sun, or in the multi-colourful market places filled with herbs and fruits. Davis doesn’t always manage to avoid temptation.
Saroo find his way among overhead bridges and through station tunnels. There’s close to majesty in a steady shot, from a distance, of him dashing down the stairs of a block of flats, fleeing sex traffickers.
Our heart is with the young Saroo at every step, and we hold our breath when he gets into trouble, and run like the wind with him when he flees from jeopardy.
We are constantly taken by surprise by the acts of kindness he experiences from the poor of the city, many destined to physical penury for life or an early death, or both. When he arrives at an over-crowded orphanage we expect the worst to befall him from the hard-worked, hard-pressed supervisors, but we give a sigh of relief when the adoption inspector arrives to lift him from uncertainty to hope.
It’s at this point the story moves too soon to Australia and one last look at the bright eyed smile of Saroo as he opens his adopted parents fridge and surveys it packed with food, more food than he has ever seen in his short life. Those are the moments that should have lit up every scene, without words. Suddenly, too abruptly, we are with Saroo the elder.
Hunky Dev Patel takes over the role.
We see Saroo the elder doing all he can to fit into his new society, relating to his new parents, having misgivings about his origins, express an ambition to own and run an hotel, (shades of Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) being with college chums, having misgivings about his origins, romancing his girlfriend, adapting to his brother-in-law, also adopted from India but a truly troubled soul, and … having misgivings about his origins.
In scenes reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters where the protagonist keeps moulding volcano-like structures out of his food, paper, clay, et cetera, before he realises aliens are telling him which shaped mountain to meet them, the elder Saroo keeps looking at Google Earth and sticking pins in a map of India on a wall, in a vain search for his real home, a name he cannot recall in full.
Rooney Mara appears as an American love interest for Saroo in a hospitality management college programme; she and Patel are predictably attracted to each other, and just as predicable, seeing Saroo’s quiet anguish, says pleading, “You can’t go on like this!”
As for Patel, he is maturing into a stupendously sensitive actor. I hope the British film industry handles his career with great care.
Your moment of Scottish Zen: In the Australian sequences there’s a section of cross-talk an alert Scot will see as highly significant.
Among college chums, Saroo joins in banter about his Indian heritage. Trying to belong he lies, “I was born in Calcutta,” he says, warding off prying questions. “Which part?” enquires a student, catching him unawares. He’s saved from embarrassment by another student who asks, “You love cricket. Which cricket team do you support? Come on. India or Australia?” Saroo hesitates, “Australia, of course.” Scots who feel Scottish and not something vaguely British know that trick question in a different form.
After that I was in a lot of hurry to get Saroo back to India searching for his family, I just wasn’t prepared for the sobs and wailing around me in the cinema when it came to pass, but at least the chorus of whimpering and weeping helped cover up my own.
In the last minute the title Lion comes up on screen as if an after-thought. It heralds a series of photographs of the real characters in the drama taken in 2013 when they all met – so don’t leave the theatre too early to wash away your tears in the cinema toilet, there’s more blubbing to be done.
- Star rating: Three and a half stars
- Cast: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
- Director: Garth Davis
- Writer: Saroo Brierley (book adapation) Luke Davies
- Music: Volker Bertelmann, Dustin O’Halloran
- Cinematography: Grieg Fraser
- Duration: 1 hours 58 minutes