Much like its protagonist, Lion is a divided film in essentially every sense of the term. Its structure is bifurcated, its protagonist is played by two leads who split the running time more or less evenly and its narrative sensibilities seem torn between a travelogue with Dickensian overtones and a character study meditating on the meaning of identity. In fact, the sole unequivocal aspect of Garth Davis’ feature debut is its perfunctorily happy ending. All this having been said, that happy ending is emotionally gratifying and inspirational enough to warrant a qualified recommendation. Yes, it’s an exercise in blatant awards-bating. But, for the most part, Lion works.
Based on “A Long Way Home,” a memoir written by Saroo Brierley, Lion recounts the true story of Brierley’s separation from his family when, at the tender age of five, he became separated from his older brother and subsequently stranded on a decommissioned train that left him homeless on the streets of Calcutta. After a series of harrowing encounters exacerbated by his inability to speak Bengali — or remember any significant details of his background — Brierley was eventually taken in by an orphanage that facilitated his adoption by an upper middle-class Australian family. Twenty-five years later, an adult Brierley was prompted to begin investigating his past and, with the advent of Google Earth, eventually succeeded in tracking down his hometown.
If the premise sounds like the stuff of pretty standard melodrama, that’s because it is. But screenwriter Luke Davies avoids the saccharine potential of the plot by presenting the suffering of homeless and impoverished children in India as a matter of fact, depicting trauma and abuse as it would be perceived through the eyes of a child. If Davies successfully navigates this pitfall of a particularly challenging adaptation, he falls prey to another when it comes to structure. The story feels distinctly compressed and yet still ponderously paced, glossing over relevant details of narrative and characterization in an attempt to underscore the emotional effect of a story that really doesn’t need any help in that arena.
Director Davis (whose background consisted primarily of car commercials prior to his collaboration with indie darling Jane Campion on her miniseries Top of the Lake), performs competently, though his work is in no danger of garnering accolades for visual virtuosity. The first act establishes Brierley’s narrative with exceptionally cinematic efficiency, favoring visual storytelling over dialogue-heavy exposition whenever possible. Davis has a knack for landscape, and early “God’s Eye View” shots evoke the plot device that satellite cartography will later provide. His stylistic flourishes go little further, though this is not necessarily a problem in and of itself as his occasionally workmanlike setups allow character and performance to retain their necessary prominence.
Davis and Davies benefit greatly from the performances of a uniformly strong cast, with Dev Patel’s turn as the adult Brierley an obvious highlight. Patel has clearly matured greatly since Slumdog Millionaire catapulted him to notoriety, and his blend of vulnerability and obsessive self-absorption suggests an actor with exceptional range and versatility. The real surprise here is newcomer Sunny Pawar, whose performance as the young Brierley deftly skirts the precocious self-consciousness that is the definitive shortcoming of most child actors. Sadly, Rooney Mara is utterly wasted in her one-note role as Brierley’s supportive-to-a-fault girlfriend, and Nicole Kidman occasionally bogs down the narrative momentum with her tear-laden turn as Brierley’s long-suffering adoptive mother. (However, my problems with Kidman’s performance are rooted in questionable scripting.) As a whole, the cast performs admirably enough to overcome many of the screenplay’s weaknesses.
Lion offers the uplifting post-holiday moviegoing experience that was promised and never delivered by recent films like Collateral Beauty, and anyone in need of a little winter heartwarming could do far worse. While it may never fully achieve greatness, it’s a picture that knows its audience and caters to them without pandering. The performances are likely to generate some Oscar talk — which probably won’t amount to much — but anyone in the market for a feel-good film will find plenty to like in Lion. It may never prove to be the king of the cinematic jungle with Rogue One still dominating multiplexes, but it certainly accomplishes its aims with a minimum of missteps. Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality. In English, Hindi and Bengali, with subtitles.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Regal Biltmore Grande.