There is a version of Lion, the one sold in its advertisements, that is the kind of movie that has been associated in recent years with the Weinstein brand. A showcase for stars instead of story, exploitative where it should soulful (particularly given its setting), and the type of film that earns the itself tired brand “Oscar-bait”. By the deft hand of Garth Davis, director of episodes for Top of the Lake, Lion escapes this (mostly), by splitting itself in two.
The first half of this true life tale takes place in India, where Saroo finds himself lost in Kolkata, 1600 miles away from his home, a place that speaks Bengali when he speaks only Hindi. Davis, a peer of Jane Campion, has not only her penchant for visual storytelling, but in finding remarkable child performers. Sunny Panwar as Saroo is our eyes and ears for the whole first act, and sells the weary and harrowing journey of this child across poverty and exploitation (accompanied by a great score from ). The five minutes we spend with this child wordless on a train makes you wonder why he is not up for more awards.
The movie follows, but never wallows. The darker elements in the world itself, from homeless to child labour and kidnapping, are not sidestepped, but seen only from the incomplete point of view of the child we are following. Following this journey in such intimacy also touches on neglected topics in general: it’s fascinating to watch Saroo’s process of adoption, from his housing to the routines before meeting families.
This is where the second movie starts. It stars Dev Patel, with an impeccable Australian accent, and Nicole Kidman with a not so impeccable wig. There are but a couple scenes with Kidman (and a good turn from David Wenham) raising their adopted kids as children before jumping twenty years. It’s the most obvious structural flaw of the film, particularly as it pertains to Saroo’s new found determination to find his biological family and his troubled relationship with his adopted brother. Did no questions about his previous family happen in those twenty years? Why an Australian couple adopted Indian children? What made the relationship between the brothers such a struggle?
The lack of these questions to explore means a lot of Dev Patel moping around Melbourne before the plot kicks in again. This is not saying the actors don’t give fine performances: Patel’s character can be unlikeable at points whilst maintaining sympathy, and in her “big” scene Nicole Kidman sells what could be a troubling piece of dialogue (I’m still not sure what I think about it). Rooney Mara is also good, but given a pretty thankless role as Saroo’s girlfriend, who seems to be there only to have conflict based on his quest when the story needs her to with no incentive. There are also things that, by the nature of the true story, are unavoidable, such as the much-touted Deus Ex Google being a suggestion by a minor character and having no value to the plot until the end.
The structure feels Weinstein approved, but even here Davis manages to keep a visual flair. The frame transitions throughout the movie from lonely wide shots of an abandoned child to extreme close-ups of people struggling for intimacy. This pays off in the films climax, which is incredibly strong and moving in a way that makes up for the inert middle section (Before a Sia song kicks in over a montage. But, you know, until then its great).
Davis has shown he has more than capable eye for cinema, but will likely be aided in the future with more substantive scripts. Lion, like its hero, is of two worlds, but struggles traverse and bring them together.