Lion – A Review

lion poster

Director:  Garth Davis

Starring:  Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara

Rating:  B

Initial Thoughts:  I’d definitely recommend watching ‘Lion’ if you haven’t yet seen it.  It is a really gorgeous film, and everyone does a great job.  I don’t think it’s a game-changer by any means.  Although I really enjoyed it, one viewing is enough for me; I won’t buy a copy for my collection.  

**Spoilers below!  Come back after you’ve seen this film!**

If you’re like me, you let your Netflix queue pile up and then end up watching the same show or movie over and over. For me, it’s ‘Bob’s Burgers’ (even though it’s now moved to Hulu) and ‘Parts Unknown.’ I think it’s because movie-wise, I love a good downer, the odd foreign film, and bad horror movies, but I don’t always have the time or attention span at the end of the day, so they just… pile up.

‘Lion’ doesn’t exactly fall into the aforementioned categories, but any story revolving around an orphan (and the larger theme of finding a place where we belong, or finding the proverbial missing piece), well…  No one is always in the mood for a tear-jerker.  So it definitely had a place in my to-be-watched list, first via Redbox and then Netflix.

A few days ago, I found myself with quite a bit of downtime—I was feeling terribly run down and on the edge of maybe slipping under the weather, so I camped out in my pj’s with a handful of supplements, a river’s worth of water, and a bowl of chicken noodle soup.  What better time to catch up on my queue and what better film to start with than ‘Lion’?

If you’re unfamiliar with this multiple-Oscar-Nominee, here’s the quick and dirty from IMDb:

In 1986, Saroo was a five-year-old child in India of a poor but happy rural family.  On a trip with his brother, Saroo soon finds himself alone and trapped in a moving decommissioned passenger train that takes him to Calcutta, 1500 miles away from home.  Now totally lost in an alien urban environment and too young to identify either himself or his home to the authorities, Saroo struggles to survive as a street child until he is sent to an orphanage.  Soon, Saroo is selected to be adopted by the Brierley family in Tasmania, where he grows up in a loving, prosperous home.  However, for all his material good fortune, Saroo finds himself plagued by his memories of his lost family in his adulthood and tries to search for them even as his guilt drives him to hide this quest from his adoptive parents and his girlfriend.  Only when he has an epiphany does he realize not only the answers he needs, but also the steadfast love that he has always had with all his loved ones in both worlds.

Firstly, ‘Lion’ is a gorgeous film.  Absolutely gorgeous—I like to imagine that Garth Davis and Greig Fraser had such open communication working on this film, one of those rare relationships that just blossom at the right-place-right-time kind of moment.  It helps that the beginning of the film was shot in India, where not even the haze of pollution nor the dust could quiet the natural color palette, and that Fraser and Davis worked a lot with the natural light available and not giant rigs.

As beautiful as it is, the first half of the film is a test for audiences.  Inspired by ‘WALL-E’ and having cast an actor with physicality that Davis would later describe as ‘Charlie Chaplin-like’, the first half of ‘Lion’ features very little dialogue.  It’s not that one must pay so close attention to the visuals so that the story will make sense later on down the line—it’s pretty obvious how the narrative will play out—it’s that it seems almost impossible to look away!  Even as we transition from India to Melbourne, the setting is still rich and beautiful.  I particularly loved the cricket scene that served not only as a stepping stone in the bonding narrative but was actually real life footage of Kidman and Pawar getting comfortable with one another which was just as natural and lovely as the scripted footage.

The second half of the film does plod along a bit.  Gone is the frantic feeling of being lost; Saroo is finally with a family and (for the most part) pretty happy.  Even as we transition to adult Saroo, it isn’t until he becomes obsessed with finding his biological family—the scenes clicking about Google Earth in particular—that the pace starts to pick back up again.  More than likely, this is intentional.  At first we feel the frantic pace of being lost, then we settle in comfortably as things seem fine, and then we are staggered and frustrated, feeling like there won’t be any resolution for Saroo, that he’ll never find his bio-fam.  (Spoiler Alert:  He is reunited with his mother and sister, though unfortunately, not his brother.)

All of the actors involved do a phenomenal job.  Kidman delivers a performance up to par with her usual gloriousness, despite one of the most terrible wigs and a frumpy wardrobe.  Her speech later on in the film about ‘choosing her sons’ unlocked the waterworks for me (Though touched up until this point, I had foolish aspirations that I’d make it all the way through without so much as a tear.  Damn you, Kidman).  Young Saroo is played by new-comer Sunny Pawar who lights up the screen; his performance is so honest, it’s easy to see how he beat out 4000 other children for the role.  Dev Patel soars as adult Saroo; his dedication to physical transformation was lovely and not over the top.  His luscious locks did so invoke a lion’s mane, I was almost devastated to see him with shorter hair at the end of the film. He’s so open and honest, and even in his fixation, Patel doesn’t quite cross into mania.  My favorite performance was for a tiny part, the lovely Rooney Mara as Saroo’s girlfriend (which was an amalgamation of partners the real-life Saroo had during his search for his family).  Mara’s not even in the movie long; her appearances are sparse.  But there is just something about the way she quietly commands the screen, saying more in a look or a well placed gesture than nearly all of the dialogue that comes before and after her.

‘Lion’ is a great film, even if the second half struggles to compete with the first.  We don’t get quite the resolution we were hoping for—again, Spoiler Alert, Saroo’s brother passed shortly after Saroo’s train journey that will take him far from home—but the reunion we are treated to with his mother and sister is still a heartfelt one.  We’re also treated to real footage of Saroo and his family (both biological and adopted).

Final Thoughts:  ‘Lion’ is beautiful, even though it’s not entirely perfect.  As I stated before, one viewing is definitely sufficient but you’d do yourself a disservice to miss it entirely.

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