Road to the Oscars: "Lion" Review

Updated on February 10, 2017

A Long Way Home

Lion is a continent-spanning drama directed by Garth Davis, starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara and Sunny Pawar. It tells the incredible true story of Saroo, an Indian boy separated from his family in a cruel twist of fate. The film follows Saroo’s journey from being homeless on the streets of Calcutta to being adopted by an Australian couple and growing up in privileged surroundings. Saroo eventually leaves to university in 2008, where he is told of the newly-developed Google Earth. Intrigued, Saroo starts using the software with a growing desire to search for what was lost to him.

Lion emerged from the 2017 Oscar nominations as a surprise nominee for Best Picture, as the film was nominated for 5 other Oscars including Best Supporting Actor and Actress. Lion has slowly gained traction in recent weeks following director Garth Davis’ nomination for both Best Director and his win for Best First-time Director at the Directors Guild of America Awards. Having not been involved in a high-profile project for a long time, I was excited to see Dev Patel finally involved in an awards-worthy film, and adding talent such as Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara never hurts, as the two are no stranger to awards. But does Garth Davis really do as good a job directing as a seasoned professional?

Initial Thoughts

If the Oscars are anything to go by, then the answer is a resounding yes. Like Hidden Figures, Lion is another uplifting story about one man’s journey home, calling on themes of courage, perseverance, love and hope. While it doesn’t quite have the spectacle feel of Slumdog Millionaire, Lion is an inherently different film which authentically showcases the gruelling poverty of India, with newcomer Sunny Pawar impressing as much as Dev Patel, who in turn puts in one of his best performances to date. Though it suffers from issues such as pacing inconsistencies, if you’re in the mood for a solid, heart-warming film that pulls on your heartstrings, then Lion is a great choice, preferably as a double-feature along with Hidden Figures if you want to feel especially good. Beware of that tear-jerker of a third act, though!

Saroo Phone Home

There are several stars of Lion that mustn’t go unnoticed. First and foremost, Sunny Pawar. The child actor who plays the young Saroo is as charming as he is strong, putting in a performance that is as mature as an actor beyond his years. Having to cope with the struggles of surviving on the chaotic, ruthless streets of Calcutta, the trials and tribulations of Saroo in attempting to find his way back to his home village is made all the more difficult to watch with Pawar’s attention-grabbing expressions and actions. One can only hope for greater things from the 8-year old Mumbai native. Next, Dev Patel. The breakout star from 2008’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire shows emphatically that his performance then was not a one-off, quashing any doubts about his acting chops as he evolves from a confident young Tasmanian man into an almost tortured soul, plagued with guilt over leaving his real family behind 20 years ago, and obsessed with finding them. Patel’s Supporting Actor campaign was likely a tactic to increase his nomination chances, as he arguably shares the lead actor role with Pawar. Nicole Kidman also puts in some solid work as Saroo’s adopted mother Sue Brierley, who channels her emotions well and has a well-written arc as a noble mother drained from years of caring for another, more problematic adopted child.

But the one star that made all these stellar performances possible is the film’s biggest, and it is director Garth Davis. The film’s champion expertly contrasts the messy, poverty-filled Indian city with the developed, serene Australian landscape, with beautiful shots in both countries that allow the viewer a 180-degree view of two cultures and the individual of two hearts who bridges the gap between them. Luke Davies’ film adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s memoir packs an emotional punch, and this is enhanced all the more by an inspired original score, instilling a sense of belonging and desire, two key themes of the film. The film’s unique use of Google Earth footage also makes for some impactful use of cinematography and editing, and this is especially clear in the film’s final half hour.

Long and Winding Road

Despite its uplifting nature, Lion is unfortunately far from the best of the Best Picture contenders, and this is for a couple of reasons, most notably an inconsistent pacing of the second act. Though Saroo’s character arc is stable overall, his transition from wanting to find his home village to an obsessive, essentially anti-social lost soul felt slightly rushed and pretentious, not giving the viewer enough emotional buildup to Saroo’s inner conflict, thus resulting in him coming off as too much of an angsty adult at times. Rooney Mara, who plays Saroo’s girlfriend Lucy, is good in her scenes, but is almost expendable to the story as she isn’t given much to do other than to be a channel through which Saroo vents his frustration. The character seems almost out of place in the film, and perhaps this is because her character is in reality an amalgamation of all his girlfriends, thus lacking a depth and focus that other characters seem to have.

Concluding Remarks

It has a couple of minor flaws, but watching Lion still brings an overall visceral element to the movie-watching experience, and I would definitely choose to watch it again over the more tragic, depressing Oscar films (you know who you are). While it is sadly not a favourite to win any of the Academy Awards it’s nominated for, it is a perfectly fine film that anyone could appreciate, serving as good example of diversity being recognised on the world stage as well as a small channel for social commentary on poverty. At the end of the day, Lion is a film about Love and how its power transcends both borders and time, a message clearly portrayed by the passion of its cast and crew, making Lion a worthy recipient of its high praise.

Overall Rating: 8.2/10

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