[This article is a bit spoilery, but to be honest I don’t think it spoils anything that the trailer doesn’t.]
The world of Lion is big, and in it people are small. This is a point hammered home time and again in the first half of the movie as we follow a young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) through India after he is separated from his older brother with no idea of how to get home. India is a big place teeming with people. It doesn’t have the time or energy to deal with all of the lost children scattered through the streets, of whom Saroo is just one.
Lion uses it’s gorgeous cinematography to its advantage. The plot tells us that Saroo is truly on his own in a vast world, but the cinematography sells it, especially in the early sequences while Saroo is lost in Calcutta. The film alternates in its framing: either Saroo is one among many street urchins, nearly indistinguishable from the crowd, or he is all alone in a city plunged into night, filling a miniscule part of the frame while enormous bridges or trains or steel structures loom in the background. Even in his small village at the beginning of the film he is often dwarfed by the rolling Indian landscape. Transporting him to Australia and an adopted family for the back half of the film doesn’t help him fill more space (the landscape is still massive here), though he does get to become Dev Patel.
The film uses the framing to raise dramatic tension as well as thematic elements. The film’s two halves have different drives: a young Saroo’s journey from home to lost to his new foster home, and then the older Saroo’s journey backwards. The first half is a simple and heart breaking narrative, but the execution is nearly flawless. Sunny Pawar merges his adorably open face with a wily intellect, and the result is a powerful but not overwhelming tragedy. The world of the first half of the film is either neglectful or dangerous, and Saroo must navigate it carefully if he wants to survive. The dramatic tension is clear cut and simple, but that doesn’t make it any less exhilarating.
The second half of the film gets loopier, more detached from time with multiple flashbacks to events from the time period of the first half, and more emotionally complex. It also involves a lot more Google Earth. While at first it seems like the most obvious emotion for Saroo to grapple with would be loneliness the film is more complex than that, and saddles Saroo instead with something like survivor’s guilt. He knows that he is alright, but the family he left behind in India doesn’t know that, and they’re probably still worried about him or mourning him. It’s a more nuanced take on what could have been a fairly straight forward back half, and Dev Patel as well as his adopted family (Nicole Kidman as his mother and Mara Rooney as his girlfriend) help to explore the dynamic between his new world and his old.
The back half also helps to lend some additional import to the first half, as the striking imagery serves both Saroo and the audience as a sort of roadmap backwards in time. The images from the first half stick in your mind, and while Saroo searches for the road he took when he was only six years old (he understandably only remembers bits and pieces) the images from the first half swim into view, aiding both him and the audience trace a path back.
At the end of the day what Lion is really about is the people who fill so little of the screen in the sweeping shots. Lion argues that the world is big, big, big, and it’s easy to get lost in it, both physically and emotionally. It’s the people who are willing to help, who try to make you feel less alone even in those great expansive spaces – the people who will search for you when you are lost – that make it not so scary (while still pretty scary).
It’s a little schmaltzy, and lapses into gimmick with the memories a bit in the second half (especially as we near the end) but it’s a good story and, more importantly, a clever and satisfying telling of that story.
Lion gets 7 out of 10 roars (this film has nothing to do with that type of lion).
-There wasn’t a lot of room to praise the cast in this review, but the performances are pretty good across the board. Mara Rooney breaths a whole lot of life into a pretty small part, and both actors playing Saroo knock it out of the park – creating unique but linked characters. Mara Rooney is also a good looking lady, and, it has to be mentioned, Dev Patel is a pretty good looking dude.
-While the cinematography is absolutely stunning, it is of course aided by gorgeous locations. This film was probably a pain in the butt to make but it paid off.
-Trains play a large part in this movie, as do train tracks, and I’ll admit that whenever any movie that involves transport gets too heavy handed on pulling the ol’ heart strings I sort of just wish someone would get hit by a vehicle Regina George style because it’d be so unexpected and hilarious.
-Potentially unpopular opinion: I generally don’t care if a story is “based on a true story or not”. I guess it’s sort of cool to know? But it rarely really affects the way that I watch a movie. Don’t know. Any thoughts?