(SPOILERS) A picture of two halves. The first being compelling, powerful and moving. The second featuring Dev Patel. No, that’s unfair. Patel’s BAFTA-winning performance in Lion is perfectly respectable, and it’s easy to see why he has also garnered an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Hair and Beard Ensemble, but he’s nevertheless far subordinate to his character’s junior version, played by Sunny Pawar, who might be the most winningly wide-eyed whippersnapper to grace the screen since Salvatore Cascio in Cinema Paradiso.
That’s not a bad comparison, actually, as everyone remembers Cinema Paradiso for the establishing scenes with Phillipe Noiret; the rest of the character’s life reminisced is watchable but lacks the same spark. So it is with Lion, possibly the most non-descript of Oscar nominees this year, recognised for its well-meaning and worthy thematic content, rather than how successful it is as an overall movie (that, and it being the picture Harvey Scissorhands chose to put his tried-and-tested weight behind for awards consideration – namely Patel for Best Supporting Actor, a canny move as he wouldn’t have got a look-in in the lead category).
The traumatic episode that befalls Pawar’s five-year-old Saroo, separated from his brother at a train station and finding himself bound for Calcutta, a thousand miles away, soon becomes a succession of narrowly avoided dangers and threats, as he evades a wave of predators, from men capturing street kids, to a man and woman (that latter seemingly benign at first: too benign) intent on selling him into the child sex trade, and finally eking out an existence begging before winding up in an orphanage. Saroo is well- treated there, even though another orphan has told him it is “a bad place”; soon, he is duly sent to Tasmania for adoption. Despite its accessible PG certificate, then, this part of the picture offers an emotionally demanding exploration of child poverty, where the glossier Slumdog Millionaire (also starring Patel) opted to deal with the subject as an excitingly-fabricated thrill ride.
Garth Davis, in his big screen directorial debut, is uninterested in visual fireworks or fancy editing, letting Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran’s expressive score provide a potent underpinning to Saroo’s journey. He knows intuitively that simply focussing on Pawar will be sufficient, whose expressive eyes and entirely natural demeanour are a match for any child performer you care to mention. Saroo’s a stoic youngster, able to survive without his mother and brother (and sister) and quickly cognisant of those who’d bring him into harm’s way. But, crucially, he’s unable to provide information about his home village (it turns out that “Ginestlay” is “Ganesh Talai” mispronounced, just as “Saroo” is actually “Sheru” – the Hindi for “Lion”).
The problem Davis encounters subsequently is that Luke Davies’ screenplay (based on A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierly and Larry Buttrose) has very little dramatic meat left to propel it. Adult Saroo looking at Google Earth for six years isn’t the stuff of a commanding viewing, and Lion soon develops the feel of artificially-extended material, from his conflicts with girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara, very good, although the role isn’t up to much), adoptive parents Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), and adoptive brother Mantosh (Dividan Ladwa).
Because the material is thin, at times the translation to screen tends to make Saroo appear more self-involved than genuinely distraught and conflicted, as if he is unnecessarily making an ordeal of matters. The plot thread with Mantosh’ emotional and behavioural difficulties is obliquely touched upon, but is actually the only really challenging part of this later section (in real life, it appears that the poor guy isn’t dealing so well with the picture’s release, something that should perhaps be considered before becoming too effusive about the good things the film will do for promoting the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption).
Kidman’s fine as the mother, although her technical skill rarely translates into emotionally-invested characters for me. Wenham’s very much on the side lines. The eventual reunion, bittersweet due to the discovery that Saroo’s brother Guddu died years before (that very night, hit by a train) is slightly detracted from by a too-prevalent device of throwing in footage of the real people, as if to say “Look, this really is true, making us all the more valid”. Admittedly, in the case of Hacksaw Ridge, it led me to seek out the documentary, but usually I find it an unnecessary step too far; the picture shouldn’t need reinforcing that way. As for Oscar night, Lion may walk away empty-handed, but if it has any longshot chances, it’s in the categories of Score and Supporting Actor. Possibly, if Pawar had been acknowledged, he’d have been a sure thing.
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