Lion, the debut feature from Australian TV director Garth Davis, is immediately gripping. Saroo and Guddu (Sunny Pawar and Abhishek Bharate, both extraordinary) are two Indian brothers living in abject poverty. They steal rocks and coal to help make ends meet for themselves and their mother, Kamla. When the brothers return home from a day of chasing trains and outrunning guards, their mother goes to work to earn even more. Saroo thinks she’s a labourer, but since she only goes to work at night… well, she may not be.
One night, as the older Guddu takes his brother out to find more odd jobs to do, Saroo falls asleep on a train and wakes to find himself travelling very quickly across the country. Knowing only Hindi, he can’t understand the Bengali-speakers around him, and can’t remember the name of his town or where it is. Eventually an authority finds him, and puts him into an orphanage. There, a caring Australian couple (Nicole Kidman, beautifully delicate and wise, and David Wenham) adopts him, moving him to Tasmania.
Davis conveys Young Saroo’s family life and disappearance with breathtaking urgency and economy. The episodic sequences showing his journey from train car to the streets, through the countryside and into the orphanage system are Dickensian in their impact and detail. For a good long while, Lion threatens to be one of the best films of the year.
Sadly, Davis cannot sustain the breathless pace and fascination of his first act. We cut to twenty years later: Saroo (Dev Patel, always a pleasure) is a major in Hospitality Management, dating the lithe Lucy (Rooney Mara, thanklessly playing a completely unnecessary character). Saroo begins to wrestle with himself; he identifies as an Australian, but feels the tug of India upon him. Are his mother and brother still out there? Don’t they deserve to hear from him?
The film doesn’t quite go off the rails after the leap forward in time. I can pinpoint it to one exact scene: the dinner with Lucy, Saroo, his parents, and their second adopted Indian son, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa, quietly heartbreaking). Compared with everything leading up to it, the dialogue is clunky and the acting perfunctory, as if maybe Davis didn’t get enough coverage and tried to edit around it. After this scene, what was moving along engrossingly, at a brisk pace, stops dead.
Once Saroo begins ‘searching’ for his Indian hometown, the film has no idea what to do. Theoretically, a character’s endless clicking through Google Map displays could be riveting, but here it is hopelessly flat. There is one extraordinary sequence that literally involves shots of Google Maps intercut with Dev Patel’s eyes—extraordinary, in the sense that I couldn’t believe Davis put forth so little effort to explore Saroo’s specific emotional journey. At that point, my respect for Dev Patel bloomed, while my respect for Lion withered.
Ultimately, Lion isn’t interested in exploring Saroo’s inner life, or anything of thematic heft. Themes of adoption, identity, and family dangle around, unengaged. You’ll realise, somewhere in the second half, that the film is going to try to make you cry, then just end. And end it does, abruptly, relegating answers to some of the film’s most interesting questions to expository title cards and some footage of the real Saroo and Company. None of this is helped by some of the truly boneheaded choices Davis makes in the final act. Hauschka is a very talented composer, and I strongly recommend you buy one of his albums. But the way Davis uses his music here is intrusive and cloying. Best not to mention the godawful song which plays over the closing credits, and made me throw up in my mouth a little.
Lion provides a cheap and easy emotional catharsis for a mass audience. The acting is uniformly strong, which carries the film along during its more mawkish passages. But, after seeing the real-life footage at the end, I couldn’t help but think that a skilled documentarian would have made a more complete, emotionally fulfilling tribute to Saroo Brierley.