Movie Review: Lion

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A man who was separated from his family as a child searches for them again, years after being adopted and moved from India to Australia.

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Garth Davis, 2016

Growing up in rural India, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a boy from a poor family who has to learn how to help make money from a young age. He and his charming, mischievous older brother Guddu (Abishek Bharate) sneak away from home to trick their way into money. Saroo adores his brother, who teaches him the tricks of the trade, much to their mother’s chagrin. One day, a trip to find work leads to Saroo and Guddu being separated; young Saroo winds up on an abandoned train heading for the end of the line, miles from home. Eventually Saroo is picked up from the streets and, when his family can’t be located, sent to Australia to live with Sue Brierly (Nicole Kidman) and her husband John (David Wenham). Saroo forgets about most of his early life as he grows up in Tasmania, to the point that when adult Saroo (Dev Patel) goes to university, his memory of his home town is forgotten. His new friendship with Indian students triggers Saroo’s memories, and he becomes obsessed with finding his home town and his mother, who he hasn’t seen in twenty years.

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Lion suffers the most from really strange structural decisions. We spend the first forty-five minutes of the movie with young Saroo. It’s not presented as a flashback, it’s just the movie, to the point where I started to wonder if we were ever going to see the top-billed actors. I didn’t even really want to. That first 45 minutes is so engaging, so well-performed, so beautifully shot and emotionally affecting, that it’s easy to get swept up in young Saroo’s struggles and the close-knit relationship with his brother. Young Abishek Bharate absolutely shines as Guddu; the film is enamoured with him, and it’s not hard to see why. The only thing is, we don’t meet Dev Patel’s Saroo until a third of the way into the movie. Despite the strength of Dev Patel’s performance (and his surprisingly not-terrible accent), he never quite makes up for that lost time. It’s hard to reconcile the wide-eyed innocence of young!Saroo with the adult he becomes, especially when that adult spends a large portion of his screentime making everyone around him feel like shit. Poor Rooney Mara’s fictional girlfriend character feels particularly underserved; she does nothing but be kind and supportive and pretty, and he does nothing but hurt her a lot. Saroo’s adoptive father and brother are similarly underused; it’s hard to see why the real Mantosh would give his consent to the movie’s awful and one-sided portrayal of him. Nicole Kidman gets a much more substantial role as Saroo’s adoptive mother. Acting in her own accent, she loses her recent ice queen persona for something that feels much more real, for good and for bad. Also, her perm is AMAZING.

The “white saviour” narrative of affluent white Australians adopting Indian children is a problematic trope that has its tendrils throughout this film, but never quite gets hold of it. The film wants to be inspirational more than it wants to be confronting. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who have no problem with inspirational films, but I absolutely cannot stomach them, and the latter half of Lion is no exception. The swell of music; the humourless, relentless drive towards Saroo’s inevitable reunion; the convenience of the moment when, just as he’s given up hope, he finally discovers the location of his home town; all of these elements and more really sap the goodwill that the film’s first half provided. It’s such a stark contrast to the gripping, real joy and fear of the film that we’d been watching up until the point when adult Saroo’s head breaks the waves. We needed more of the in-between times to show us why Saroo became this stranger of an adult. Or, more ideally, the film could have a traditional structure – we get to know and like adult Saroo, then as his memories are unlocked and he starts chasing them, we get more and more of young Saroo and Guddu (and ideally Saroo’s mother, who gets ONE SCENE before she becomes his adult obsession), so that we care about reuniting the two stories by the end. Instead the film is disjointed, two separate movies stuck together awkwardly, one film considerably better than the other.

Lion on IMDb

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