Director: Garth Davis / Screenplay: Luke Davies (from book by Saroo Brierley) / Editing: Alexandre de Franceschi / DP: Greig Fraser / Music: Hauschka & Dustin O’Halloran
Cast: Sunny Pawar / Abhishek Bharate / Priyanka Bose / Tannishtha Chatterjee / Nawazuddin Siddiqui / Deepti Naval / David Wenham / Nicole Kidman / Dev Patel / Divian Ladwa / Rooney Mara
Lion is based on a remarkable true story about loss, both of experiencing loss, being lost and finding one’s identity after a lifetime’s searching. It carries an almost-mythical sense of wish-fulfilment & reconciliation, much of which survives the adaptation to a screenplay: and that’s the problem…
For readers unfamiliar with the tale (and going in, that included me), it begins in a remote, rural province of Western India, in the mid-Eighties. A young, single mother – Kamla (Priyanka Bose) – works as a labourer in a local quarry, to provide for her three kids: a young girl, a middle boy of around 5 or 6 – Saroo (Sunny Pawar) – and an older boy, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Saroo idolises Guddu and accompanies him as they roam in-search of valuables, be it sacks of coal pilfered from a moving cargo train or collecting lost coins: anything to supplement Kamla’s meagre wage.
First-time Director Garth Davis struck gold with his young cast here, especially with Sunny Pawar as young Saroo, who’s open face is a delight to watch as he finds wonder in the world about him. From the giddy heights of jumping from a slow-moving train, to standing amidst a fluttering cloud of butterflies, Pawar is effortlessly conveying the joys of being a kid… His family might be dirt-poor, but Saroo’s unconcerned with material things, which is just as well, given he can only imagine the sweetmeats he vows one day to buy for himself…
The look of the film in these early stages, is shot-through with burnished sunshine. DP Greig Fraser delights in India’s golden, dusty skies, with Director Davis giving us enough depth & coverage in his setups, to let as much of the ‘real India’ seep-in, as the film’s PG certificate can stomach. Davis & Fraser do enough to invoke the ‘smells’ of our imagination, whilst falling admirably short of revealing their origins…
The Fateful Day that changes Saroo’s life, occurs when he pesters Guddu into letting him tag-along on a trip to ‘the city’, where Guddu intends to spend ‘a week’, searching for coins around the railway lines of the station… On arriving, Saroo proves too tired to help his brother and opts instead, to sleep on a platform bench. On waking in the middle of the night, Saroo finds himself utterly alone. Guddu’s nowhere to be seen, so he ducks into the empty carriage of a stationary train, expecting Guddu to find him: only to fall asleep once more. When he wakes, several hours later, the still-empty train is hurtling across the countryside – and will do so ‘for a couple of days’. Again, Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies use Pawar effectively, to generate a sense of helplessness as the boy is taken further – and further – from home.
Eventually, the train pulls-in to Calcutta and the inevitable tidal wave of humanity that surges aboard, almost swamps the boy. Davis does well to shoot as much as he can from Saroo’s POV. There’s one long-shot of a sea of bobbing heads moving down the platform; Saroo’s managed to find a vantage point from where he can look out, over the human tide, in-vain hope of spotting Guddu; at times, it’s all very Slumdog Millionaire (2008) in its aesthetic…
DP Fraser does well to modulate the film’s ‘temperature’ here, too, as Saroo meanders into the station’s pedestrian tunnels. There’s still that ‘golden amber’ tint, but now it comes from strip-lighting; the film has moved from one of exteriors to more claustrophobic interiors.
This shift in locations – from outside to inside – continues as Saroo is befriended by a young woman, Noor, who’s own partner may (or may not) be in-touch with child-traffickers and who views Saroo, not as a child in need of help, but a potentially lucrative payday. Saroo’s already escaped a round-up of the street kids by nefarious figures back at the station and his alarm bells are ringing again. So, he runs – and keeps running – until we catch-up with him two months later, when a twist of Fate has him brought to Calcutta’s central orphanage (that better resembles a youth prison); from there, he’s adopted by a Tasmanian couple.
Enter: David Wenham as John Brierley and a distinctly unglamorous Nicole Kidman as his wife, Sue. Watching them together, even in these opening shots as they welcome Saroo to their home, I was struck by how natural they are towards the little boy. Once again, the film is driven by Sunny Pawar’s unaffected curiosity; his unpretentiousness. Child actors often emerge from stage schools projecting an aura of ‘performance’ but not here. It’s taken an hour to get here – to Tasmania – and comparatively little has actually happened, but Pawar makes for such an endearing companion to spend time with, that the sluggish plot never feels begrudged as long as he’s the one carrying it.
So when we see an idyllic beach scene, with Saroo enjoying quality time with his new parents, we get the unerring sense that it’s all about to come crashing down: which it does, with the arrival a year later, of Mantosh – another young boy from the orphanage, though one with ‘behavioural issues’. Having glimpsed a fraction of the reality back in Calcutta, our imaginations are eagerly cranking-out scenarios to explain the boy’s difficulties, but it only raises problems in the script’s lack of depth.
Young Saroo might be engaging company, but his experience is mostly passive in dealing with what the world brings to him. The one-time he exerts a desire to go out and grab life by the scruff of the neck (i.e. travel with Guddu), it goes spectacularly wrong. I attribute this to a script (and, most likely, the source book) that fails to bestow ‘agency’ upon the boy. I started thinking that he was so swayed by the wider world – by its airliners, its TVs and these nice white people now calling him ‘son’ – that his real family were too easily – and conveniently forgotten; locked-away in some discreet, mental strongbox. Then again, I had to keep checking myself and wondering how I might’ve responded in Saroo’s position. If, like Saroo, I couldn’t tell where I came from and if I was now being treated humanely for the first time in months, by adults who appeared to have my best interests at-heart, then maybe I’d have been equally ‘passive’, if it meant a life away from Calcutta’s rubbish dump… Who can say?
The film then lurches forward twenty years, to 2008. Saroo is now a windsurfing Dev Patel, all-set to begin a university course in far-off Melbourne (to study hotel management of all things) but things have changed. The cut-and-paste family dynamic has been tough on everyone, not least Sue, for it seems Mantosh has never overcome his earlier problems and now lives alone, in a remote shack out in the boonies, where he lives the dissolute life of a committed stoner. Divian Ladwa, an actor I’d previously seen in Mackenzie Crook’s wry TV comedy Detectorists, really brings this troubled character to-life; not easy, given how under-written it is. Kudos to Davis, then, for the economy of his visual storytelling, in expanding our knowledge of Mantosh, in-lieu of dialogue. Pictures really can speak volumes, when we’re allowed time and space to see them…
Saroo gets to Melbourne and soon catches the eye of fellow student Lucy (Rooney Mara). From having them mirror each other’s actions on opposite sides of the street, Davis has them knocking a friend’s door together; a neat, symbolic gesture. The occasion is a party held by mutual friends and it’s here, in their kitchen, that Saroo encounters a pile of the same sweetmeats he’d once dreamed of. It’s the first time he’s seen them since India and the shock triggers a wave of recollection & admission that he shares with the group. Someone mentions ‘Google Earth’ and how he might use it to find his long-lost home village.
As Saroo engages with the group, I was struck by Dev Patel’s commitment to the cause here. I mean, this is emotionally-heavy (if thin) fare, yet in his overwhelmed response, I felt Patel was all-but handing out ‘For Your Consideration’ headshots to the Voting Members of the Academy!
As things unfold, we get Lion’s equivalent of the ‘action-montage’: man looks-up-stuff-on-the-internet and shoves coloured pins into a wall-map of India, before a crucial scene with Lucy & the folks. Saroo’s been urged by Lucy to tell them about his success (or lack thereof) in using Google Earth to find his birth mother, but has been reticent so to do, which is lucky as the disruptive element that is Mantosh then arrives, causing Saroo to remark, bitterly, remorsefully to Sue: ‘I hate what he’s done to you!’.
In that moment, I thought Kidman was superb; perhaps her best work since The Others (2001). Ms. Kidman has herself chosen to adopt two children, as well as deliver a pair of her own, and watching her run a gamut of emotions as she refuses to castigate or blame anyone for Mantosh’s problems, felt acutely personal. What’s more, she conveys the notion that this is as much about Saroo feeling guilty at having left his real brother behind… Both this, and a later scene between Sue & Saroo, are the most affecting in the entire film because they come freighted with emotional truths: which brings me to Lion’s REAL problems…
For a tale such as this to work as a feature-length movie, certain elements need to be present. First, the principle character needs to be, in some way ‘larger than life’, even if they start-out as nondescript. Why? Because the Second essential element is jeopardy. The character will need reserves of Courage | Guile | Nous to overcome an escalating tier of developments; each one mastered, revealing or honing a latent skill or dormant aspect of their personality: it’s The Hero’s Journey.
It worked for Jason, Odysseus and countless other heroes & heroines down the centuries. We root for them because, in overcoming such trials, they represent the best of us: or what we might imagine our own ‘best selves’ might look like if so tested.
But what if our nondescript figure really did have nothing to discover or reveal? What if his good fortune ran to being alive at a time when Google Earth exists… A tool he then uses to – eventually – locate his original home village… It’s hardly The Golden Fleece, is it?
Antiquarian heroes battled monsters and endured years of toil before reaching their goals.
Saroo Brierley? He gets a bit moody. Drops out of his course and grows an impressively shaggy beard, as he devotes himself to his own sofa-bound quest. The script ends-up treating this phase of the storyline as a videogame, reducing it to a patience-sapping round of join-the-dots.
The film’s first half works, because young Saroo could be any one of us as a child. He’s beguiled by a big, bad world, yet still capable of finding joy amidst the mundane. Yet from the point we leave him behind, the script feels like it’s on a conveyor-belt, taking us inexorably towards the end-credits with a perfunctory cynicism (along with the now-obligatory documentary footage of a ‘real-life’ meeting of mother & son: was there ever any doubt that occurred?).
Thinking about Lion after the event, I struggled to pin-down what the script was lacking. Then I remembered Philomena (2013), the Judi Dench & Steve Coogan two-hander, based on the book by Martin Sixsmith & directed by Stephen Frears. Outwardly a similar tale of loss, but told from the mother’s POV, Philomena clicked with a wider audience, thanks to a few key changes. First, it dealt with a recognition of systemic failures within the Catholic Church; still a hallowed institution for millions. It moved on to examine the relationship between Church and State within the Republic of Ireland and took-in aspects of ritualised shame, sexual identity and, finally, a mother’s simple & honest love for a lost son. Though it touched on a panoply of ‘hot-buttons’, the film remained coherent because Sixsmith (Coogan) was always there; the journalist in search of a story, providing insight, balance & enquiry. The film’s structure as much as its subject, made the whole more relatable.
Lion comes-off as inferior by comparison and not just because the story is so small, but because once it moves into Dev Patel’s half, he’s the only one driving the narrative. The only other character who might’ve formed a counter-balancing energy was Lucy: but she’s underwritten and their relationship falters in any case. For the screenplay, I would’ve expanded her role. Giving Lucy more of an equal load to carry, would’ve humanised the older Saroo; given him broader dimensions than the monomaniacal obsessive he actually becomes. Of course, that solution would’ve required more screen-time invested in a character NOT played by Sunny Pawar and would go some way to explain why I’m not a practising screenwriter!
And yet… By expanding that one key character, other aspects currently unaddressed, can be covered. For example, at no point does the script ever colour-in Sue & John’s life together. What’s their occupation(s)? How do they integrate the boys, as a way-in to Australian life? By not considering scenes that might expand on the familial bonds Sue & John have obviously fabricated between them, we’re asked to take too much on-trust. I know it’s Saroo’s story, but if the script is confident enough to show aspects of Mantosh’s life, then why couldn’t it have given a minute or two to this?
There are other noticeable gaps in the narrative. The use of Google Earth, for example. One contemporaneous reviewer of the film, suggested things might’ve been improved, had the story been shown to have had a positive impact on a troubled member of Google’s development team and I agree. At this point – in 2018 – Google Earth is as ubiquitous as electricity or indoor plumbing, yet there’s no sense in the film, of the wonder felt on first using it, or even seeing it in action for the first time. Instead, it’s all dealt with perfunctorily with no fanfare, yet I’d argue that its presence is the ‘Magic Dust’ through which Saroo unlocks his mind’s trove of memories and, therefore, ought to have been given greater impact in the script, regardless of whether such awe was in the book, it would’ve been more cinematic.
A feel-good story’s only as good as the person it happens to: and if we can no longer see our idealised selves in such a character, we no longer care because it’s happening to someone else…
In this case, Saroo Brierley.
I haven’t read Brierley’s book, so have only the film to go on, but if the life on-screen is a fair reflection of the text, I’d have to conclude that Lion is – to this reviewer, at least – little more than an over-inflated short-story.
The film itself looks good, has one or two sparkling performances and has been made with honourable intentions by all concerned, but I can’t see it hanging-around. No, Lion is rather a film of its time, offering hope & optimism when both seem in short supply. And if you really want to watch a heart-rending movie odyssey, based in Australia, might I suggest Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) or Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (1971)?
Two films in which heroes journey…
Dinner Guests: What paper trail?
Saroo Brierley: My mum could not read or write.
Dinner Guests: What did she do?
Saroo Brierley: A labourer… she carried rocks.