This film is so predictable in the way that it manipulates your emotions that it leaves you feeling like the victim of a con game.
One of the most common emotions for a film critic leaving a screening at this time of year, when the studios roll out Oscar bait movies, is disappointment. Many of these films have much to offer—name actors, beautiful cinematography, lots of emotional uplift—yet seem so carefully calculated to bring home a golden statue that they end up being less satisfying than more modest efforts that dare to do something a little interesting with a much smaller budget.
Lion is just that type of film. It’s a heartwarming tale based on a true story (Saroo Brierly’s memoir A Long Way Home), features stunning location cinematography by Greig Fraser, has a cast made up of both reliable stars and new faces, and has a script full of well-planned beats designed to wring the last drop of emotion from your soul. And yet this film is so predictable in the way that it manipulates your emotions that it leaves you feeling like the victim of a con game.
The first half of Lion is far more engaging than the second. Young Saroo (newcomer Sunny Pawar) is poor but happy in rural India, where he and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate, also a newcomer) do odd jobs to help their mother (Priyanka Bose) keep the home fires burning. Then one day, they are separated, and Saroo ends up alone on a decommissioned train bound for Calcutta. On his own in the big city, where he can’t even speak the language (Bengali; his home language is Hindi), Saroo has a series of unbelievably narrow escapes. There must be quite a business in child slavery and prostitution in Calcutta, judging from his experiences, but it all ends well—Saroo finds his way to an orphanage and is then adopted by a childless Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
Leaping forward about 20 years, Saroo (Dev Patel) is now a handsome young adult heading off for a hotel training course in Melbourne. He’s as Australian as can be, with a white girlfriend (a sadly underused Rooney Mara) and a cadre of cool friends, until a chance mention of Google Earth (then a relatively new technology) sets him off on a mission to locate his birth home and family. Saroo doesn’t have much to work with (he doesn’t know his mother’s name or the name of his village), but you know how such things work in the movies—bits of memory come flooding back and he pieces together enough information to go on a journey, the conclusion of which should have had the audience in tears, but instead had me thinking of The Incredible Journey, and not in a good way.
The first half of Lion is brilliant—you feel like you are experiencing each moment with Saroo, whether he’s racing through the streets or settling down for the night with his family. Much of the credit for the success in this half must go to the young Pawar—and to director Garth Davis’ skill in working with him—and to Greig Fraser’s cinematography. The second half, by comparison, is clunky, which is not a knock on Patel (he’s great, as always) so much as on Luke Davies’ screenplay. It doesn’t help that the first half is all movement, while most of the second half is static (lots of Patel staring at the computer screen or at a map on the wall), or that there’s no tension in the story since we know the outcome going in. In the end, Lion is not a terrible film, just one that is very, very disappointing. | Sarah Boslaugh