“LION” IS A pleasant enough, reverential, inoffensive weepie. The acting (it’s almost exclusively Dev Patel’s movie) is credible, but certainly not Oscar-worthy; fortunately, though the story sometimes veers toward sentimentality, it retains just about enough bite to keep the gag reflex under control.
It’s another true story (this we know, as it uses the rapidly aging device of showing video of the real people as the credits roll). Saroo (Dev Patel) was the younger brother (played as a kid by charming newcomer, Sunny Pawar) of a dirt poor family, living happily, if in squalor, in the slums of Central India. One day, having begged him to, he is taken by the brother, Guddu, on a nocturnal search (for whatever they can find to add to the family’s meager fare). But Saroo wanders off, away from the brother’s line of sight and, having fallen asleep in a nearby parked train, awakens to find himself locked in, and hurtling toward he knows not where. He ends up 1600k away in a teeming, alien city (Calcutta) where they don’t even speak his dialect.
He’s five years old.
Saroo is eventually adopted (Nicole Kidman – as compelling as always – is Sue Brierley, the adoptive mum) and grows up, along with another, mentally challenged, adoptee, in beautiful, bustling Tasmania.
The emotional guts of the movie centres on Saroo’s sudden awakening to the life he once lived and a suffocating sense of loss. It drives him obsessively (trigger images of an un-tonsured, somewhat deranged looking Patel, staring blankly at a wall of maps) to find his estranged family.
The whole enterprise is so respectful, so focused on the easy linear obviousness of familial separation that, despite a few subtle hints here and there, it eschews all the issues that could have lifted the story above its anodyne setting. We’re told that the movie is dedicated to the 80,000+ kids in India who disappear every year, and there are suggestions of pedophilia and the unlawful sale of kids; but the movie veers away from this darker side. Saroo (Spoiler ahead) eventually returns to his home village after various vignettes of “emotional stress”; he’s now a well- fed Australian who no longer has the language with which to communicate with his still poor, Indian family. He’s a being from an alien world. But this ‘slight’ barrier is glossed over. The orgasm of tearful and tear-inducing reunification neutralizes all further creative investigation. Maybe the movie’s deep thought is that, in the end, “love is all you need”. There are hints that the adoptive parents are decidedly weird (and Saroo’s head banging fellow adoptee may be accurate but remains an entirely unexplored world in this family). But, out of respect, this storyline goes nowhere. And the, initially cute, romance between Saroo and Lucy (an under-utilised Rooney Mara) is really no more than an aside, relevant only for matters of historical, not creative, veracity.
In an age of great, thoughtful, emotionally robust TV, “Lion” feels like a throwback. Despite, the A-caliber star power, it lacks the ‘size’ to feel like the major movie it longs to be; the production feels cut-rate (the cinematography by Greig Fraser -“Foxcatcher”- isn’t even particularly good); and it never aspires to the subtleties and nuance we now come to expect of the best of TV.
Less a lion, more a pussycat
LION. Dir: Garth Davis. With: Dev Patel. Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara. Screenplay: Luke Davis (a well regarded Australian poet) adapted from the book by the protagonist, Saroo Brierley.