Sunday, February 05, 2017
Why does the film Lion have its title? The reason isn't revealed until the end credits, but by then it almost doesn't matter. This Best Picture-nominated story of survival and of finding one's place in the world is so urgently acted and skillfully shot that we would go along with almost any title we were given. Lion is the story of Saroo Brierly - the film is based on his memoir - who when we meet him is a five year old in India in 1986. Saroo is played as a child by Sunny Pawar, an exceptionally natural performer who is perhaps the film's greatest asset. An accident sends Saroo by train from his rural village to faraway Calcutta, where he neither knows anyone nor speaks the language. The Calcutta train station is shot by director Garth Davis as a nightmare of human activity. Bodies flow in waves and bounce off of each other, and because Davis finds a visual language to match Saroo's experience we barely see the grown-up faces. Saroo doesn't understand everything that is happening to him but his instincts serve him well. He manages to hold his own long enough to be adopted by Sue and John Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a kindly Australian couple.
The first half of Lion is a Dickensian tale of courage, but once Sue and John have adopted Saroo's angrier brother Manosh the film cuts to the late 2010's. Saroo, now played by Dev Patel, is a student with a new girlfriend called Lucy (Rooney Mara) and career prospects. One day Saroo and Lucy have dinner at the home of an Indian classmate; the evening is convivial until someone comments on how Saroo (who hasn't shared his story with the others) can't eat Indian food with his hands and a childhood memory is triggered. The second half of Lion is an of-the-moment tale of asserting one's identity. Saroo, encouraged by Lucy, begins trying to figure out where his home village is via Google Earth. The two shakiest moments in Lion occur after Saroo - whose search seems to take over his life - begins looking for his home. Saroo gives a speech to Lucy that invokes "privilege" which seems to come out of nowhere, while Kidman's Sue recounts a childhood incident that led to her forgoing having children in favor of raising a "brown-skinned child". Both of these scenes are redeemed by strong acting - Dev Patel has never been this forceful on screen - and they hint at a direction the movie fortunately doesn't go in, one in which Saroo's Indian heritage is interesting simply because it's unfamiliar to Western eyes. The screenplay by Luke Davies pulls back though, and the resolution to Saroo's journey is very moving. Lion works because it is content to keep things on a human level and not mythologize either its characters or its setting. It's also a good story well told, and that in itself makes it worth the experience.