Written by Matt Taylor
There came a point during my screening of Lion where there wasn’t any dialogue being spoken, and the only sound you could hear in the theater was a collection of quiet, but consistent sobs. As the runtime went on, the crying only grew louder, to the point where it occasionally overpowered the dialogue. The fact that this film produced such an overwhelming emotional response amongst a crowd of hundreds speaks to its power. But, does it earn those tears?
The story behind Lion is an undeniably powerful one: five-year-old Saroo gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, and is separated from his mother and brother, with no knowledge of how to get back home, and a host of dangers around every corner. Eventually, after living on the streets and in an abusive orphanage, he’s adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), and forgets his childhood in India only to experience brief flashbacks to his past as an adult. At 30 years old, Saroo (Dev Patel) decides to investigate his origins and find out where his family is today by using the then newly launched Google Earth.
For about an hour, Lion is absolutely riveting. As we watch Saroo’s childhood unfold before our eyes, director Garth Davis manages to completely captivate the audience, and produce emotional reactions without becoming too manipulative. The child actors are cute and lovable, but not precocious or cloying. The scenes play out in a shockingly realistic matter. Davis also makes a number of intelligent decisions while choosing how to depict the hardships that Saroo faces once he’s lost. The film, which depicts the horrors of child sex trafficking, could have been exploitative in lesser hands, but Davis handles these scenes with the perfect amount of sensitivity. It lingers more on the effects the abuse has on the victims, and not the abuse itself. Davis also makes the intelligent, and all too rare choice to film this first hour in Bengali and Hindi. This doesn’t feel like a Hollywood sound stage, where everyone speaks English with a slight accent. This feels like a realistic depiction of another country, shown through the eyes of a five-year-old.
Unfortunately, once the film transitions to show Saroo’s life as an adult, problems begin to arise. The movie starts to drag for a bit, with a few too many scenes highlighting his inner turmoil surrounding his childhood. All of these scenes are compelling thanks to Dev Patel’s strong work, but they do become repetitive and drag the film on for about fifteen minutes too long. Similarly, a love interest (played by Rooney Mara) is shoehorned into the plot, adding an unnecessary romance that fails to ever really add to the narrative. Mara, who is fine in the role, is wasted with cheesy dialogue that, more or less, repeatedly summarizes the theme of the film without a hint of subtlety. And while this may have actually happened in real life, the scene where Saroo is first made aware of Google Earth is unintentionally hilarious, with characters turning into human commercials for the company and singing its praises in a completely unnatural way.
The second hour also contains some subtle, strong moments. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are both excellent as Saroo’s adoptive parents, with Kidman making a convincing argument for a fourth Oscar nomination thanks to a powerful monologue she delivers near the end. There are also some very effective moments that show the lasting impact that child sex abuse can have on a victim. And, of course, the ending is a complete gut punch of emotion. Even the most cynical viewer will feel the urge to shed a tear or two, and Davis doesn’t have to employ any of Hollywood’s tricks to do it. He lets the story speak for itself, avoiding any unnecessary frills along the way.
It’s always a bit upsetting when the first hour of a film is brilliant, only to have the second half drop the ball. But it’s even more upsetting when the second half is still pretty damn good - just not as good as everything that preceded it. Despite a need for tighter editing, it’s easy to see why Lion won my audience over so quickly. It’s a beautiful story told well, with a cast of talented actors turning in fine work. Audiences will undoubtedly cry, but they will also be deeply moved.