Whenever a narrative movie based on a true story is produced, I always question why it was not told instead as a documentary. In the specific case of Lion, its story could conceivably have been presented as non-fiction, considering how recently it transpired (i.e., the late 2000s/early 2010s). The documentary form is certainly capable of conveying intense emotion; look at Hoop Dreams, Making a Murderer, or even last year’s O.J.: Made in America. The reason a filmmaker would choose a narrative over non-fiction can often have a lot to do with a desire to twist the facts into a more palatable version. I don’t know the backstory of Lion, but like with any other film based on a fact, it’s a distinct possibility. I wouldn’t have wanted that, because as it exists, Lion is a terrific, even if emotionally draining, film.
Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a five-year-old boy who lives with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), little sister, Shekila (Khusha Solanki), and mother (Priyanka Bose), in a rural village of India. Saroo’s mother is a laborer who “carries rocks,” meaning that Saroo and Guddu while away their days finding ways to make spare money to support their family. Against his better judgment, Guddu brings along Saroo on a night job, during which the little boy falls asleep on a bench in a train station and becomes separated from Guddu.
Saroo winds up on an empty passenger train that takes him all the way to Calcutta, 1,600 miles away from home. He ends up in an orphanage, from which he is adopted by well-to-do Australian couple, John (David Wenham), and Sue (Nicole Kidman). They also adopt Mantosh, a troubled young boy who is from India as well.
Twenty years pass and Saroo (Dev Patel) is attending hospitality courses in Melbourne, where he meets his girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara), who pushes him to use Google Earth to figure out what happened to his family after he disappeared.
Based on this description, it isn’t hard to imagine that Lion is a movie that is suffused with pain and loss. Although it never veers into mawkish, ethically questionable territory a la Slumdog Millionaire, Saroo’s young life in Calcutta is characterized by constant misery, when he isn’t being duped into brief happiness by manipulative adults. This early trauma afflicts him into adulthood, when the older Saroo is given to mood swings and emotional distance. Patel’s performance is worthy of its Oscar nomination, as he expertly shows the internal conflict that drives a wedge between the two mothers in his life: his present, adoptive one and the one he has lost.
Kidman is also equally great, though used sparingly throughout the film. Her early scenes with the child Saroo (whose actor is so naturalistic and adorable as to draw tears on sight) lay a rock-solid foundation for the scenes to come. Sue is a gentle, kind woman who understands the gravity of taking responsibility for potentially damaged children. Kidman dispenses with the severity we have come to expect in order to bring her character to life.
First-time director Garth Davis impressively assembles this sprawling story, matching shots from earlier in the film with later ones. We see how the adult Saroo is haunted by his past when he has visions of his brother. It is a somber film, but not without moments of joy played between Patel and Mara, who have vibrant chemistry. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is lush and shadowy, working well to visualize Saroo’s tormented thoughts.
Although the events of the film are public record, I would recommend going into it without knowing the conclusion. I had no idea, and that is what made it such a gut punch to see. It is for this same reason that I believe in the decision to make Lion a narrative film instead of a documentary. Real people are generally too understated to convey the intense emotions they are feeling. The movie is never actively trying to play your heartstrings, but it packs a wallop in a way that a more objective telling may not.
Drama | The Weinstein Company