Lion, based on a true story, follows Saroo (Dev Patel) – an adopted Indian man – as he attempts to trace the family he was separated from as a child using only his limited memories and Google Earth.
It’s a film of three parts, the best of which comes at the start. Initially, we find young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) in his Indian birthplace; it’s a remarkable section of the film in which Pawar delivers an incredibly moving performance as Saroo becomes lost via an out of service train to Calcutta, where he’s left to fend for himself. Speaking in Hindi, Pawar manages to portray a vulnerable, yet wholly capable, instinctive child in what’s the standout performance of the film. Garth Davis’ visceral direction coupled with some astounding, sweeping shots of India make you feel like you’re right there amidst Saroo’s fear and confusion until he’s adopted and flown out to Australia.
All too soon the film jumps forward in time, a grown up Saroo (Dev Patel) emerges from the sea in Tasmania. The large leap made the film feel disjointed. The disconnect killed the strength of the empathy I had with the character, the rest of the film never quite managed to regain it to the same level.
My main criticisms lie in this middle section; it carried a lot of dead weight. It’s very tricky to portray the difficulty of a computer based search in a compelling way, particularly if you want to establish that a lot of time has passed. Lion tries to do so by highlighting the impact the search has on Saroo’s relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), but ultimately ends up with far too many unnecessary shots of them flipping between fighting or being together in bed; neither of which really drive the plot forward. It also takes the search off the computer screen with a massive pinboard full of maps that Patel stares at for long periods of time and uses flashbacks and visions of Saroo’s childhood to convey how memories of his lost family haunt him. It all felt very tedious and unfocused until Saroo has a random, rapid breakthrough in his search. Credit should, however, be given to Nicole Kidman who delves deep to portray the emotional weight of adopting a child.
There’s no denying that Lion redeems itself in the final chapter where Saroo returns to India to find his family. It hits its emotional core in the final scenes, Patel really delivers and I defy anyone to resist crying when the real Saroo and both his families are shown right before the credits roll.
Overall, there is no doubt that Lion packs an emotional punch, but it’s very linear in nature and never truly lives up to little Saroo’s story at the start of the film. I give Lion a rating of 3.5/5.