Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar
Many serious cinema fans turn their noses at more emotional films. They want to see art devoid of manipulation, and they distrust anything that pushes buttons.
Let’s not go into the fact that all art is made to elicit reaction.
Because most of us love to go to the movie to feel. We marvel at the artists’ ability to work together to create empathy, rage, joy, and sadness in the hearts of even the most petrified of audiences.
Lion is a deeply emotional telling of a true story. It’s purposeful, and we should love it for that. If we wanted cold, analytical reporting, we’d go see a documentary.
Firstly, there probably already exists a documentary of this amazing true tale. Young Sarooo (Pawar) was a poor, rural Indian boy. In the early 1980s, his brother lost him in a foreign train station. Saroo hopped an empty train for shelter, and then he awoke 1600 miles away in Calcutta. There, the crowded streets spoke a different language.
After Saroo found people who spoke his native Hindi, they assumed he was an orphan. They pushed him to a loving family (Kidman, Wenham) in Australia.
The first two-thirds of Lion is all about the five-year-old’s nerve-wracking struggles in that hostile, dirty, crowded Bengali city. Saroo finds other lost kids. Some are purposefully abandoned because they’re mentally or physically handicapped. People snag many of these street kids for nefarious uses.
There are hints of child prostitution. Even people who at first seem nice can turn scarily evil.
Throughout, director Garth Davis shoots the film with intimate close-ups and disconcerting long shots. Therefore, we see the tiny Saroo almost lost among masses of people, or next to a giant bridge or building. We sense how small and insignificant this boy is in this modern dystopia.
Then Saroo grows up…
The last third is buoyed by Kidman’s performance as the suffering, sweet-hearted adopted mom. Kidman brings such a depth and dimension to this complicated character. This is the sort of role that re-establishes the actress’s talent.
However, the rest of that last third is a little more uneven. Patel’s adult Saroo is just a little too Emo. He resents his comfy upbringing with Kidman and hubby Wenham. His romantic relationship to Mara doesn’t add anything at all to the story (especially when compared to Kidman’s portrayal).
At this point, I just feel Luke Davies’ script loses how to tell this true story. Moments drag. Patel clicks through online resources; he’s talented enough to make his one-dimensional moments more captivating. However, Mara plays a cipher of a girlfriend, a long-suffering soul with no gusto.
And then there is the ending, which is practically perfect. Here, Davis, Davies, and their cast all know where they’re going. They’re not lost. And they sell a devastating, heartfelt denouncement to this true tale. It’s impossible not to feel.
So, it’s easy to forgive the sagging parts. It may be even easy to totally forget the flaws. Because the start and finale of Lion roar.