Dir: Garth Davis
Despite the solid performances of adult Academy Award nominees, the real strength of this film lies with young newcomer Sunny Pawar who doesn’t just steal scenes, he steals the whole film.
Saroo, a 5-year-old boy in India ends up increasingly lost and far from home, eventually adopted by a couple in Australia (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). When grown up (and turned in to Dev Patel) he struggles with the challenge of finding his home and whether he should even try.
It’s impossible for the film to avoid drawing comparisons to ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ because of the setting and casting of Dev Patel. However they are completely different, this is based on a true story as written in Saroo Brierley’s book. It’s very much a film of two halves, Saroo’s childhood and getting lost in India and then his young adulthood in Australia and trying to rediscover home. Thankfully it takes the time to tell the first part in brilliant detail, there’s no rush to get through it or shortcutting too much with big gaps in time or rushed montages. The second half of the film is very different in tone and content but continually links back to his childhood, using well-integrated flashbacks in which adult Saroo transposes his memories into present life, which effectively and emotively show how he remembers pieces of his childhood.
The film is beautifully shot with cinematography by Greig Fraser (‘Foxcatcher‘ and ‘Rogue One‘). We have these two visually different countries shown, India and Australia, with a mix of rural and urban areas in each. From wide shots of vast landscapes, to the bustling cities, there’s always plenty to look at, at times making effective use of scale to show how small Saroo is as he gets further lost in what for him must have been an ever-expanding world.
All the performances are very strong, Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman are the ones that have been lauded with award nominations but there are many others that deserve commendation such as David Wenham whose role is more understated than Kidman’s but equally important, and Abhishek Bharate who is fantastic as Saroo’s biological brother Guddu really perfectly depicting a caring older sibling. Rooney Mara also does a good job as a love interest and patient supporter of Saroo and his quest, though it didn’t really give her a lot more to do beside that, being incredibly patient and understanding with flurries of lover’s quarrelling.
Clearly the most stand out performance here though is young Saroo played by Sunny Pawar. I don’t know why he isn’t getting nominations like his adult counterpart, he’s in the film just as much if not more, yet is not even named on the top of the posters. I know his name isn’t a marketable audience draw, without doubt though his performance is. I think it’s the way in which the first half of the film works so well and gets the audience emotionally invested in Saroo that helps to cover over some of the weaknesses of the second half. By the time we get to see him grown up we care about him and want to see the outcome, hoping for a reunion or some happy ending to his otherwise troubled journey.
At times it’s very strongly prompting an emotional response, though surprisingly a lot of this is later in the film rather than with young Saroo, who better draws us in to caring about him more than just prompting tears. Adult Saroo flip-flops a lot while deciding to find his family, I am sure that’s in his book and reflects the real difficulty of the decision but it’s frustrating to watch nonetheless and made me wish he would just get on with doing what the trailer promises he would. There are arguments and struggles, which seems to drag on for a while, depicted through his increasingly unkempt appearance.
Saroo’s eventual use of Google Earth to find his home is interesting, it’s clearly the key development in making his epic quest actually possible. I didn’t think a couple of the shots of the program being used worked so well as cinematic visuals, especially when compared with the rest of the film, though I don’t exactly know how they could have been done a lot better except maybe having a little more distance from the screen so we would be watching him on a computer more than seeing low-res Google Earth full screen. Apparently this is an issue the director also identified, so clearly struggled with finding a better way to show it. Some moments of him using the program work very well, at one point he is shown clicking his way through the journey and it’s intercut with memories, at which point it all comes together nicely by making use of the fantastic cinematography from earlier in the film. These recurring memories are more frequently used from then on, building to a really effective ending that returns the film to the heights of the first half with the kind of pay-off the trailer and everything so far was inevitably leading up to.
Usually having a film that feels like it’s made up of distinct parts doesn’t work, they often struggle to pull the pieces together in a way that feels like it works as a whole. ‘Lion’ manages to make it work thanks to the heightened investment gained from Saroo’s younger days being brought through into the depiction of his adult life, as well as effective use of memory and editing to tie it all together in a way that reflects how he’s thinking, cleverly resurfacing and capitalizing on our memories and strong emotions from the best parts of the film.
‘Lion’ has been nominated for a number of BAFTAs and Oscars, including ‘Best Supporting Actor’ and ‘Best Supporting Actress’ for Patel and Kidman at both. I think it’s likely to leave empty handed but the film is still a very emotional and compelling piece with one of the best child performances you’re likely to see.