A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.
Garth Davis brings us his debut feature film based on the book ‘A Long Way Home’ by Saroo Brierley. This is a story we already know the ending to but this film is about its journey, not it’s finale. Lion is split into two different parts, one that shows us his younger life as a child in India and the other as an adult in Australia. Two contrasting representations of Saroo but the best part of the film becomes its first half which follows him during his childhood years.
This first half opens quite differently to the usual Western take on India in cinema, there aren’t any Bollywood stereotypes here. Instead Garth Davis and cinematographer Greig Fraser utilise the beautiful locations and create a vast and open view of its climates. Greig Fraser who last worked on Rouge One showcases his versatility with cinematography in Lion. This isn’t the action blockbuster he last did, instead its a very contained story but his images still capture the space of India. His view is wide and we follow his shots as he explores the depth of rural India, even the aerial shots are beautiful done to mimic the Google Maps experience. Another thing Fraser and Davis capture is the countries spirituality which becomes an important part of the story because Saroo’s journey becomes that of spiritual self discovery.Authenticity is key when it comes to capturing the essence of India’s realism and Lion manages to capture the beauty in a poverty stricken country. During this first half you could almost believe that Lion is a foreign film because no English is spoken, the film relies on Bengali and Hindi narrative. The lack of English speaking characters adds another layer of realism to this world Davis tries to recreate from Saroo’s own memories. A nother reoccurring theme throughout Lion is poverty and the problems the children face in India. Saroo is not the only child lost in the film, instead we are shown the droves of underground orphans and their vulnerability. My major problem with the film is its empty plot holes, such as the images of child kidnappers and potential traffickers. The text at the end of the film even speaks of this problem but the true intentions of these random intrusive characters are never revealed. Outside of Saroo’s story the darkness of this seedy underbelly would have been better explored but Lion manages to stay clean and focused on Saroo and his journey.
The second half of the film follows Saroo as an adult in Australia as he struggles to try to find his way back home. This part of the film is filled with a lot of soul-searching and we get many poetic shots of Saroo trying to find his place in society. This part of the film slows down such a fast paced story, not many events occur from this point on so you begin to wonder if it really needed to take up an hour of runtime. Garth Davis’ cinematography vastly changes in this second half, again showing his versatility with the camera. The view of the camera becomes quite wide as it focuses on the landscapes and India itself. In this second half even though we are treating to the scenery of Australia , we never really explore its locations. Instead the camera becomes quite isolated with Saroo and its this claustrophobic mise-en-scene that brings the viewer right into his trapped state of mind. My biggest flaw with this film seems to be the editing and the divide of this film into two halves, it can seem lazy but at the same time I understand its artistic merit. If the story of Saroo in Australia had been shortened and editing in between the first half, I believe the film could have had a cleaner finish. Instead the film again loses focus on its side characters and many are left underdeveloped such as his love interest, his adopted father and especially his adopted brother Mantosh. His mental instability is shown in a few scenes but it’s never touched upon and we never really understand how close his connection to Mantosh is. The one thing the film does encapsulate perfectly is its emotions and Lion is an emotional rollercoaster. Big biopic tear jerkers like this always fall into the realm of melodrama and this cheapens its emotion. However, Lion handles its emotions perfectly and the issue of child homelessness in India is hard-hitting and never dampend. As an Indian myself the journey and struggles is quite relatable for us and a lot of my people. As Indians we all have family members who have undergone such poverty and struggles so the emotional gravitas is quite strong with Lion. The whole of South Asia suffers from this problem and this is the first film that brings light to this problem to a Western audience.
Another strong point of this film was its performances especially from its lead played by Dev Patel. After playing the stereotype Indian in many of his roles from Marigold Hotel to Slumdog Millionaire, I was left underwhelmed with his casting. What could this mediocre actor bring to the screen that would be new and fresh? Dev Patel in turn comes back to cinema and gives the performance of his life time. His deep soul-searching and struggles with identity are visible through his physical performance without even the use of words. Also he’s grasped the subtle Australian accent without making it sound comical which brought me closer to the film as it didn’t make me feel like I was watching Dev Patel playing another Indian. Sunny Pawar was the newcomer who played the young Saroo and his performance was also noteworthy as he carried the film for its entire first half and his performance never faltered. Adding another veteran performance to her resume was Nicole Kidman as Saroo’s adopted mother and even she immersed herself into her role perfectly. As a real life mother of two adopted children I think she found a personal connection to her character which came out beautifully on-screen. Lion has recieved many mixed reviews so I was expecting something good but not amazing. However, Garth Davis has surprised me completely and created one of the most emotional films of the year and one of its best. This is an important story that I’m glad was brought to the big screen and I’m glad the issues of child poverty the film raises are finally being made aware to the Western world.
Final Verdict – 9.0