Editor’s Note: Lion is currently playing in wide theatrical release.
Based on Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home, Garth Davis’ (Top of the Lake) feature-film debut, Lion, isn’t, to paraphrase Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities,” but it is a tale – or rather a film – of two distinct, unequal halves, one set several decades in the past on the Indian subcontinent, the other in the near present half a world away in Australia and Tasmania. The first half follows the familiar, if no less moving, Dickensian story of a young boy, separated from his birth family by time, distance, and language, who eventually finds a home with a loving, compassionate Australian family. The second half jumps ahead two decades, following the adult Saroo as he experiences long-suppressed memories and with those memories, a profound sense of cultural and familial dislocation and decides to find the birth family he left behind in India, culminating in a third act that plays, however unintentionally, as product placement for Google Earth.
Intentional product placement or not, Lion’s over-reliance on Google Earth as a plot point and plot solver points to Lion’s central flaw: There’s little, if any drama, in Saroo’s “journey.”
In the first, emotionally wrenching half, Saroo (newcomer Sunny Pawar, delivering a revelatory performance well beyond his years), a five-year-old Indian boy, convinces his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), to let him accompany Guddu to find work as a manual laborer, but when Guddu leaves Saroo on a train station, promising to return (he doesn’t), Saroo makes the fateful decision to board a board a train leaving the station. When he awakens from a nap, he realizes he’s trapped with no way out. The train heads ever westward, crossing hundreds of miles before finally depositing a frightened Saroo in Kolkata where he’s left to fend for himself. Unfamiliar with the language (he speaks Bengali, the residents of Kolkata speak Hindi), he’s a stranger in a strange land where the rules of survival change with every chance encounter.
Homeless children take him briefly before child snatchers descend and Saroo’s forced to flee. The apparent generosity of a woman turns potentially dangerous when Saroo realizes she has other intentions in mind (i.e., selling him to a pedophile), before a chance encounter with a stranger outside a restaurant leaves Saroo in an orphanage. As Saroo soon discovers, the orphanage is less sanctuary than prison, with corporal punishment for minor infractions the norm, not the exception. The kindness of a social worker, however, connects Saroo to John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman), an Australian couple eager to adopt internationally. As depicted in Lion, they’re kind, generous, and giving. What you see is what you get with the Brierleys, though the eventual adoption of a second boy, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav), proves to be fraught with complications. Where Saroo adapts easily to his new family and surroundings, Mantosh, scarred physically and emotionally doesn’t.
Director Garth Davis opts for the kind of slick, superficial storytelling that might win him points with moviegoers eager for crowd-pleasing entertainment, but not with moviegoers eager for some depth and nuance with their cathartic cry.
In the floundering second half, however, Lion falls into a trap typical of first-time directors: How to depict the interior life, the interior struggles of a passive, reactive character. As Lion shifts its focus to a grown-up Saroo, now played by Dev Patel (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire), it quickly loses the narrative and dramatic momentum of the first half. The adult Saroo we meet initially is a pampered, well-adjusted young man interested in becoming a hotelier and acquiring the romantic attentions of a fellow student, Lucy (Rooney Mara, relegated to the thankless, supportive girlfriend role). All’s well in Saroo’s life, however, until night out with Indian-born acquaintances stirs up long suppressed, painful memories of his childhood and the family left behind. Saroo slips into a deep, dark pit of anguish, alienating his family and girlfriend (she leaves for America at one point, but then returns, reentering Saroo’s life a few minutes before the “Eureka” moment hits Saroo), quitting his studies, and obsessing over a map of India and Google Earth, searching for clues that will lead him back to his childhood home.
It might sound cynical to say that without Google Earth, Lion doesn’t get made. Without Google Earth, Saroo Brierley doesn’t find his long-lost family. Without Google Earth, Saroo Brierley doesn’t write a memoir of his journey back to India. Without Google Earth, Saroo Brierley doesn’t sell the film rights to his memoir and Lion doesn’t get made, let alone released during awards season. Intentional product placement or not, Lion’s over-reliance on Google Earth as a plot point and plot solver points to Lion’s central flaw: There’s little, if any drama, in Saroo’s “journey.” It’s not much of a journey at all, depending less on Saroo’s ingenuity, resourcefulness, or dedication (train timetables aside) than on his protracted, stagnant obsession with finding his birth family to the detriment of his personal and professional life.
Credit to Patel for delivering a near Herculean performance given the inert, one-dimensional nature of the character he’s forced to play, but Davis and his screenwriter, Luke Davies, fail Patel and by extension, Saroo Brierley, not to mention the remainder of the cast, by failing to find a way to dramatize, to externalize Saroo’s inner life beyond repeated, repetitive close-ups of Patel’s anguished face. Davis and Davies could have dug deeper into the inherent complications and complexities of assimilating into a foreign country as an international adoptee, losing your cultural and social identity in whole or in part as a result, and finding a personal balance between those cultures and identities. Instead, Davis drops those issues, ideas, and themes as soon as he raises them, opting instead for the kind of slick, superficial storytelling that might win him points with moviegoers eager for crowd-pleasing entertainment, but not with moviegoers eager for some depth and nuance with their cathartic cry.
Lion, an emotionally charged drama for its first half, turns into an inadvertent advertisement for Google Earth in its second, opting for the kind of slick, superficial storytelling common in shallow, but crowd-pleasing, entertainment.