Xin Yi Wang reviews Garth Davis’ directorial debut – now nominated for 6 Oscars, including Best Picture.
Lion, an its core, is a beautifully made, unabashed tearjerker focusing on the struggles of identity, family and home. Though at points emotionally manipulative, it is ultimately well-made, and offers soul and empathy to its audiences with compelling characters and well acted performances. Based on the true story of Saroo Brierley (Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel) and adapted from his memoir A Long Way Home, Lion is director Garth Davis’ debut feature film, though this does not show.
Davis has split the film into two parts – the late 1980s and late 2000s/early 2010s – and we follow the unfolding events chronologically. The first part focuses on Saroo at five years old, from his heartwarming interactions with his family – elder brother Guddu (Abhisek Bharate), mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) and younger sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki) – through the events that lead Saroo to be separated from his brother after falling asleep on a decommissioned train. We find him alone trying to navigate the city of Calcutta, more than 1,000 miles from his hometown Khandwa and speaking Bengali as opposed to Saroo’s Hindi. He searches for his brother and mother, and we experience with him the journey that ends in his adoption by Australians Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham).
The first half is assembled brilliantly through acting and cinematography, hinting at terror in the unknown streets and filling us with fear for Saroo’s safety. Shots of the vastness of the city contrast with the small figure of Saroo to really engage a sense of stress and nervousness, allowing us to marvel at the landscapes and world without forgetting the loneliness and fear in Saroo. Though we know he’ll eventually find safety through adoption, emotions run high in this act, with strings of tension balanced against the warmth of his familial bonds and those who help him along the way. First-time actor Pawar brings an amazing stand-out performance as young Saroo, showing the right degree of innocence, fear, joy and the desperation of a child just looking to be with his mother and brother again.
In the second half of the film, twenty years after his adoption, we meet Saroo again in the shape of Dev Patel. Triggered by a childhood favourite snack, he grows determined to find his hometown and biological family through the use of the then-new technology Google Earth. He is also plagued by the guilt and conflict, hiding his search from his adoptive family; his struggles are only known by his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara).
The shift in tone between the first act and the second act is obvious, and though it ends in a satisfying conclusion for the more than twenty-year-long search, the two parts of the film at times feel like different movies. But what can we really expect? From the difference in language between the two parts (Act 1 is almost completely in Hindi and Bengali, while Act 2 uses English) to the focus of the plot (a young boy alone and lost in a foreign city versus a man looking for his roots through technology), there is little doubt the two halves will not feel the same in tone. Despite this, they remain two sides of the same coin, not just thanks to the story tying the two together, but also through Saroo’s lingering longing for home.
Flashbacks are frequent, alluding to parts of Saroo’s childhood, and while most of them are important, certain flashbacks do get a little frustrating as the audience has seen them before. They also handicap certain emotive scenes which could be better played out entirely through Patel’s performance, trusting and relying on Patel to convey Saroo’s emotions instead of editing to a repetitive flashback of a scene we can recall ourselves. Another slight complaint about the second half would be on its pacing: sometimes we just watch Saroo scroll through Google Earth with nothing much going on.
Even so, it maintains a natural progression, and still holds the strings to our emotions, bringing conflict between Saroo and his adoptive family – in particular with his adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) – and highlighting brilliant performances. Patel gives a career-best performance, allowing the audience to understand and empathise with his struggles, while at the same time displaying the charisma and charm Saroo possesses. Nicole Kidman shines as Sue, bringing to life a loving mother with layers of fragility, gentleness and understanding, who just wants the best for her sons. The purpose of Rooney Mara’s character is largely to support and carve different layers to Patel’s Saroo, but she does a great job despite having little to work with.
The score by Dustin O’Halloran stands out on its own, accompanying and enhancing emotive moments, and helping to tie the film together. Beautifully composed, it echoes and invites empathy towards the characters and their struggles. I do have to say, however, that I was not a big fan of Sia’s end credits song Never Give Up, which felt a bit too jarringly different from the tone of the entire film, and overall didn’t fit.
Though containing less tension and less engaging than the first half, Lion’s second act gracefully crescendos into an explosive, tear-jerking conclusion, giving the audience a well-deserved cathartic moment. Its emphasis on home and identity wraps the film up nicely, offering not only a simple biopic but one with heart. After wiping off tears, one could walk out the cinema feeling much better and inspired.
Lion is out in UK cinemas now. See the trailer below: