Gareth Negus uses his search engine to find meaning in Lion
Lion is one of those Awards-bait true stories that has pretty much everything Hollywood loves: cute kids, exotic locations, a tearjerking ending. The story itself is certainly something: the tale of a small child who became lost in India, was adopted by an Australian couple, and twenty years later, sought out his home village by using Google Earth. But as a film, it suffers from being split into very distinct sections.
While Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman are the stars, the sizeable first act is led by Sunny Pawar as the child Saroo. After nagging his older brother to take him on his night job, Saroo falls asleep at a train station. When he wakens, his brother is nowhere to be found and the station seems abandoned. Saroo goes looking on the only train to be seen, which then leaves with him on it. By the time he’s able to get off, Saroo is in Calcutta, where he doesn’t speak the language, many hundreds of miles away from the home town that he can’t even pronounce properly.
The wide-eyed Pawar is an irresistible hero, which is partly why this section of the film is easily the most gripping. A chain of events ends happily (under the circumstances) when Saroo is adopted by an Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). At this point, we leap ahead a couple of decades, and Patel takes over the lead role.
There’s something of a problem that the main point of the story – Saroo’s attempts to identify his point of origin – doesn’t kick in for the best part of an hour; and a bigger one that the film doesn’t seem especially interested in the process of his search. Of course, extended sequences of someone poring over Google Earth on their laptop don’t make for gripping viewing. The real difficulty is that the emotional heft of Saroo’s story – his guilt at the effect his obsessive search might have on his adopted mother – doesn’t involve the viewer. Nobody (other than Saroo, apparently) would consider that such a plainly loving and supportive couple would begrudge him his wish to track down his biological family, which means we’re all just marking time until he gets on a plane.
As the adult Saroo, Dev Patel sports a beard and long hair that help to make him look like an adult for the first time on screen; you never once think of Slumdog Millionaire or (thankfully) The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel while watching him in this. Nicole Kidman is also excellent as Sue Brierley, to the extent that you wish the film had focussed on her a little more. However, the parents, Saroo’s adopted brother – and especially Rooney Mara, wasted in the girlfriend role – are destined to be background figures.
Ultimately, of course, the film does take us, and Saroo, back to India. Without wishing to spoil anything, many people leaving the screening appeared to have something in their eye; and when the footage of the real Saroo and his families appears at the very end (as such images inevitably do in based-on-a-true-story films nowadays) you’d have to be pretty cold inside not to feel a twinge on the heartstrings.
Lion is a good story. In fact, it’s several good stories and one good ad for Google Earth:
You can’t quite escape the feeling that any one of them could have made a good film; as it stands, Lion feels like two or three films compacted together. The adventures of a street child, followed by a character study of a young man torn between two worlds, followed again by his eventual reconciliation of both sides of his past. A less linear narrative might have been an advantage. As it stands, Lion is watchable and even moving. But when a film is all about the payoff, it leaves everything else feeling like a preamble.