Sometimes a real life story is so incredible that the urge to translate an epic against-the-odds tale into a film is impossible to resist. Unfortunately, not every such story lends itself to a big screen rendering, lacking the necessary ingredients to deliver a cinematic vision that is as captivating as the premise. Such is the case with Lion, a truly remarkable story about an Indian man adopted by an Australian couple as a young boy who sets out to reconnect with his birth mother some 20+ years later. It sounds like the perfect set-up for an action-packed movie; our protagonist scouring the length and breadth of India in a desperate search for his family. The problem is that most of the search takes place from the confines of an apartment in Melbourne, rather than on the bustling streets of Mumbai or the villages of rural India. It is an amazing tale, unbelievable almost, but the most engaging segment of the film is the opening section when five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar), having fallen asleep on a railway station bench while waiting for his older brother, wakes up and stumbles into a decommissioned train that takes him all the way to Calcutta. All alone and unable to speak bengali, Saroo finds himself lost and alone in Calcutta, thousands of miles from home. Eking out a pitiful existence on the streets, Saroo ultimately finds himself in an orphanage from where he is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) Brierley.
This opening 45 minutes or so are thoroughly engrossing as young Saroo struggles to understand just how lost he is and, with the potential for harm so prevalent, there is plenty of tension in this part of the story. In fact, it is very reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire in that regard. It is when the narrative jumps forward to Australia that the momentum slows, sometimes to a glacial pace. Despite having experienced a happy, middle-class Australian childhood, an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) still yearns for a return to India and a reunion with his family, even though he has no real recollection of where he lived as a child. Encouraged by his university friends, which includes girlfriend-to-be Lucy (Rooney Mara), Saroo sets out on a quest to try and work it all out; basically just using the internet to gather information that may, or may not, assist him in his mission. Looking at Google Earth on a cinema screen is no more interesting than looking at it on a smart phone though, so it doesn’t make for particularly riveting viewing. When he eventually makes the vital breakthrough, it comes almost by accident, resulting in a somewhat anti-climactic conclusion to his search.
To the credit of first-time feature director Garth Davis, working from a script by Luke Davies which was adapted from Saroo Brierley’s novel A Long Way Home, the film never becomes overly sentimental or melodramatic, but that may just be because the result of Saroo’s search is already known by those going to see the film, eliminating much of the suspense that would typically be embedded in such a story. We see Saroo struggle with the conflict of cultures; the privilege of his life in Australia at odds with the poverty of his youth and he gets emotional support from Lucy, whose presence seems to be either an afterthought tacked into the story to add a layer of emotional heft, or a much larger role that has been whittled away to almost nothing in editing. It’s hard to tell which but, either way, Rooney’s considerable talents are wasted on a character that has very little to do.
It is no secret that both Kidman and Patel (seemingly the go-to man for any role requiring an Indian male under 30) have secured Academy Award nominations for their roles and one can’t help but feel that maybe that is more to do with the lobbying efforts of executive producer Harvey Weinstein as much as anything else. Sure, both deliver fine performances, but the real standout is Pawar, the first-time performer plucked from the slums of Mumbai to play the young Saroo. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with Lion; the cinematography from Greig Fraser (Rogue One) is gorgeous and the music score from Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran is a sonic delight, but I just can’t help but feel that there was a more cinematic story to be told here, perhaps the search for Saroo from the perspective of his mother.