*SPOILER ALERT* Milo Garner reviews Lion starring Dev Patel.
Lion, debut feature from acclaimed advertisement director Garth Davis, in many ways sticks close to its creator’s history. Ostensibly it functions as a long-form edition of the inspiring and emotional adverts companies like Google and Facebook roll out every once in a while, here Google Earth getting the limelight. But despite this somewhat distracting frame, the core of the film has a lot more heart – even if it isn’t anything particularly ground-breaking. That said, it doesn’t need to be.
Lion’s best moments come early on, while we follow Saroo (Sunny Pawar) aged five in his native India. Here his relationship with Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), his big brother, is quickly established as they work together stealing coal from a train – they’re poor but not unhappy. Little time is then wasted setting into motion the main plot of the film, with Saroo falling asleep on a train about to set out on a dead mileage run. After days trapped inside he finds himself hundreds of miles from his home, now in Calcutta, and is unable to recall the exact name of his village or speak the Bengali language. This leaves him down and out, and, given his problems with communication, leaves the film rather low on dialogue for much of its first act.
Rather than a negative this actually works in Lion’s favour, allowing many wordless passages where the camera follows Saroo through various areas of Calcutta, in and out of peril. One particularly effective sequence is on his first day in the city, where a fellow urchin offers him a cardboard ‘bed’ to sleep on in a tunnel. They are soon awoken by traffickers who attempt to kidnap the kids, and the ensuing chase scene is high-octane stuff – a fluid camera and sharp editing helping in this regard. No explanation or direct context for this incident is given, and perhaps sadly, none is needed – the pared back approach serves excellently. It’s also worth mentioning that the cinematography is largely good throughout the film, but stands out especially in this primarily visual section, with some of the overhead shots looking especially pretty (though a little less when intercut with Google Earth later on, but even then are functional).
As this segment comes to the end, Saroo finds himself spirited away to Australia via an adoption agency. There is then a jump forward about twenty years and Dev Patel takes the role, his flowing mane being the sole reason for the film’s name (as far as I can tell). Here we are quickly clued into the situation – Saroo had a fairly good upbringing under Sue and John Brierley in Tasmania. However, it was one blighted a little (as far as Saroo is concerned) by the presence of another adopted child, Mantosh, who clearly suffers from some mental disorder. We meet him again celebrating with his parents that he managed to get on a hotel management course in Melbourne (hard to take seriously after that particular option was mocked in T2, but nonetheless). He is charismatic and charming, and arriving at Melbourne quickly makes friends, and a girlfriend (Rooney Mara). Happily there is no Needless Romantic Subplot and Davis keeps that whole element minimal – supplementary at best.
Here, and after a fair amount of time all things considered, the main drive of this part of the film appears; after discussing his Indian heritage with others he finds himself suddenly yearning for home. There is a slight strangeness in the tacit suggestion that this is a new and transformative feeling. It isn’t explained why at this point in particular the urge for his biological family, a common trend in adoptive children, suddenly came to the fore, and it makes the following events a little hard to run with. While becoming ever more obsessed with finding his family (partially through the Brand New tool Google Earth! Check it out!) he apparently begins to have a total breakdown, complete with hallucinations and an even larger mane of hair. While Patel acts excellently throughout this fall, there is again a sense that it isn’t entirely justified, and that the search itself isn’t detailed enough. We know the character is looking, but only get to see his reactions rather than the actual task of narrowing down the possible locations in any depth. This follows the general style of the film but leaves the audience without much to attach themselves to in what is essentially the central narrative. This is made up for by some good family drama and interactions around the theme of adoption (those who have adopted or were adopted will probably find this a little heavy, but in a good way), but I felt myself wondering when the film was going to return to Saroo’s mission at hand. There’s also the issue of the hallucinations themselves, which seemed a little extreme in context, but this might just be due to a failure to communicate the extent and reasoning of Saroo’s collapse to such a degree.
But despite some shortcomings the film is ultimately a success – it is touching and engaging for most of its runtime, even if it doesn’t try anything too ambitious or impressive. Its minimal aspects serve it well, and this carries over to the soundtrack, by Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka. It’s built around a pleasant if longing piano theme, later accompanied, and sometimes overwhelmed by, various strings, though the theme itself is often transposed throughout. It gets a little Einaudi at times but, by and large, is very effective – especially in those quiet initial sections, and builds for some great emotional climaxes. Unfortunately the music doesn’t quite manage to hold out beyond the closing credits, with a touching (if typical) conclusion followed by an unabashed pop song totally at odds with the film’s music and tone otherwise. Complete with a generic sitar ostinato stuck at the bottom of the mix it’s an uninspired way to end a film that was otherwise quite reflective; Sia seems a very strange choice from an artistic standpoint. But with 17 million plays on Spotify so far, there’s money to be made. Ignoring the song tagged on the end, Lion can be looked back on as serviceable story about family, adoption, and love – one fairly well crafted and certainly entertaining.
Featured image: Empire Online