Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar
Run Time: 118 mins
If you have paid close attention to what films get nominated at the Academy Awards over the years, it is a well-known fact that Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s relationship with the Academy always allow a couple of the films that they have produced to get in there whether or not they are worthy of a nomination. Whatever your views on these Awards, these guys sure know how to play the system. And also, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the films will be of lower quality – they distribute Quentin Tarantino’s films and he’s one of my favourite film directors. ‘Lion’ is the film this year that no-one really expected to get as many nominations as it did. It is Australian director Garth Davis’ directorial debut and recounts the true story of Saroo Brierley and his plight to find his family after he gets lost as a child when he goes out to accompany his brother who is looking for work. The young Saroo ends up on a train that whisks him all the way to Calcutta which he cannot understand the Bengali language and ultimately finds himself being adopted by a couple in Tasmania where he then grow up. Sunny Pawar makes his acting debut as the young Saroo and Dev Patel plays him in the later section of the film as an adult, Patel earning an Oscar nomination for his performance. The cast is rounded out by Rooney Mara, David Wenham and Nicole Kidman, the latter also scoring an Oscar nomination for her turn here. I must admit I didn’t have high expectations for this film and I thought it had only got in because of Weinstein. It looked like a run-of-the mill biopic that was emotionally manipulative and there was a part of me that was quite ready to dish on it. However as one must do, I watched the film with an open mind.
To my surprise, I really liked ‘Lion’ and found it to be an emotionally rewarding and heartfelt experience and the material was respectfully judged by Garth Davis. It features some very real performances with the standout being Dev Patel and although it can’t quite shake off the biopic feel at times, its narrative manages to do a lot of the heavy lifting. It also features a very memorable score that is respectful and well-judged and the cinematography is equally effective in encapsulating the narrative of the film.
The performances that this film hinges on are all very strong with Dev Patel as the older Saroo being the standout. Patel gives a perfectly judged performance and is a very versatile actor. He has to deal with the fragmented memory of his family that he cannot remember their location and he doesn’t know where he has come from. At one point, he is completely overwhelmed and this gives Patel a chance to really display his acting chops. Sunny Pawar, a newcomer, is also fantastic and in the early sections in the film that concentrate on his performance, he manages to convey his fright and despair in his situation and the audience get to experience his constant fear of the unknown. David Wenham and Nicole Kidman play the parents who adopt Saroo in Tasmania and both are brilliant – they are both compassionate and are really convincing in their roles. Although Rooney Mara’s role is small, she manages to make a good impression as the older Saroo’s girlfriend who is conflicted and doesn’t quite know how to help him with his journey.
The story that Davis manages to adapt is very respectful and I must say at first when I had heard that this film deals with finding one’s parents through Google Earth had me quite trepidatious as that is inherently not particularly cinematic but Davis really manages to handle this well and the film doesn’t just become like a seemingly paid advert for Google. The film is split into two rather distinct halves both dealing with the two iterations of Saroo – the first half a tale of despair, isolation and fearing the unknown and the second act, redemption and the sheer will to be reunited. There’s a very poignant moment in the middle of the film where Wenham and Kidman’s characters adopt a second child who has difficulties adjusting to this life and the film almost feels as if we shouldn’t be welcome to witnessing these difficulties. Davis ultimately does a very economical job of retelling this story with it not feeling pretentious which it very easily could have been and not being too in-your-face and contrived.
The Oscar-nominated score, a collaboration between Dustin O’Halloran, an American pianist and composer and Hauschka, German, is very memorable and perfectly encapsulates the various feelings Saroo has in the film and his journey to be reunited with his family. I thought it was very well judged and even as a standalone piece of music, is gripping. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is also well judged and particularly in the first half, manages to encapsulate the haphazard chain of events that happen at random to Saroo, who is completely unsure of what will happen to him as he drifts further and further away from home.
Overall, ‘Lion’ really surprised me and I ended up really liking it. It was very touching at times and I felt that all of the performances were very grounded and real whilst maintaining the utmost respect. It’s a really interesting true story that has a modern spin to it by him using Google Earth to try and get closer to finding his home and the film deals with the idea of fragmented memory really well. It’s not perfect and it can’t quite stand itself apart from genre conventions but I really wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did. In terms of the quality of the film, I would rate it as one of the stronger entries in this year’s crop of films that have been nominated for Best Picture. Go and see it!