Lion opens with sweeping aerial shots of stunning Australian and Indian landscapes. At times, the desert scenery renders the two countries indistinguishable, but more often the disparity could not be more apparent; dense, overpopulated neighbourhoods juxtaposed against spacious, beachside communities. Greig Fraser’s cinematography scrolls over these sceneries with tireless momentum, tracing roads and train tracks. This camerawork is purposeful, mirroring the mindset and actions of the character at the film’s centre and in turn providing depth to its source material.
Lion’s greatest asset is its story, an incredible true account of Saroo Brierley’s life based on his autobiographical book A Long Way Home. As a 5-year-old (played by Sunny Pawar), Saroo was separated from his family in an isolated Indian town and left to fend for himself on the dangerous streets of Calcutta. Eventually adopted by an Australian family and raised in Tasmania, Saroo (played by Dev Patel in his adult years) decided to begin the search for his long-lost biological family using Google Earth – an emerging technology at the time – to retrace his journey back home.
It’s a story that’s naturally inclined to the ‘tearjerker’ class of dramatic filmmaking but a rare example of one that earns its tears with restraint and elegance. Director Garth Davis – best known for his work on the television series Top of the Lake alongside Jane Campion – understands the weight of this asset and aims to present it tastefully with a delicate and sympathetic touch, while screenwriter Luke Davies attempts to eschew any melodramatic undercurrents, regularly allowing the camera to talk on the characters’ behalf.
Davis’ framing is intimate, immersing the audience in Saroo’s state of mind as he wrestles with deep-seated emotional trauma that’s beginning to surface. Saroo’s psyche intermittently jumps between reality in Australia and memories from India until the two become indistinguishable, literally manifesting ghosts of his past. In between his searches, scrolling across India landscapes on Google Earth, he is haunted by visions of his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), who was the last family Saroo saw before losing them. It’s incapacitating him and Dev Patel does a tremendous job of internalising the anguish through his performance, while Davis materialises it.
There’s a sense of poetic realism in these moments, not exactly a revolutionary technique but effective nonetheless. In doing so, Davis heightens the aesthetic to add complexity, avoiding sensationalism or discernible manipulation. Lion takes its time, investing in emotion that accrues from an understanding of character. There’s some superficiality – Saroo’s hair grows long and unkempt to reflect his emotional state, which is a tad too obvious – but whenever the film feels vaguely manipulative it’s easily forgiven because of this investment.
There’s a tendency to call a film of this calibre ‘Oscar bait’ because of the ‘feel good’ nature and depiction of its true story. While the film is likely to pick up several Oscar nominations, Lion is an Australian co-production from a first-feature filmmaker with clear admiration for Saroo’s story. Never does the film feel like a cheap attempt at awards attention…
… until a jarring Sia song called “Never Give Up” plays over the credits. It’s an overblown misstep – presumably imposed by the film’s distributors, The Weinstein Company – which somewhat diminishes the gracefulness carefully orchestrated throughout Lion’s runtime. It’s also completely incompatible with the film’s beautiful score, composed by both Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran. Their coinciding piano and string arrangements complement each other with stirring effect to echo the two intertwining identities of Saroo.
On paper, the presence of ‘Academy Award® winner Nicole Kidman’ probably sets off the ‘Oscar bait’ alarms, but her performance is never overbearing, instead offering a warm and layered portrayal of Saroo’s adoptive mother Sue Brierley. One enlightening character scene in particular is sure to solidify her Oscar nomination in the supporting category and will no doubt resonate with adoptive parents profoundly. ‘Academy Award® nominee Rooney Mara’ also shows up as Saroo’s love interest, but her role doesn’t really amount to much. Dev Patel offers a potent performance as the key player of the second half, though he’s almost upstaged by his younger counterpart Sunny Pawar in the former.
Lion is structured linearly so that the entire first half takes place in India with 5-year-old Saroo. This storytelling choice is in interesting one, especially for a story that would’ve perhaps seemed more inclined to the flashback approach. The first half feels independent from the second, almost like a different film; a tale of a child’s survival, spoken mostly in Hindi. It’s only in the film’s finale that the two halves begin to entwine, with the visions of his past leading adult Saroo home. While this structure supports the film thematically, it creates problems for the film’s pacing as each narrative checkpoint is reached systematically and without momentum. For its audience, there’s little to discover as we observe Saroo grappling with his two selves, which can drag.
The intention here is to create separable narratives – in harmony with the nuances in cinematography and score – that ultimately coalesce to emulate this characterisation. It may not always enhance the film but it’s a commendable manoeuver for a film that might only be heralded for the sentimentality of its story. The difference is, by the time Lion wants you to cry, it’s earned the tears.