Film review: Lion

by James Robins / 28 January, 2017

 

Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) with girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara).

Based on a true story, Lion tells how an adoptee rediscovers his lost Indian family.

Lion opens in the valleys of Madhya Pradesh, India, where two ­brothers from a destitute family steal coal to survive. The younger, Saroo (Sunny Pawar, a minor revelation), is the ­definition of naive kid charm – a black swatch of smeared hair, his voice not much more than a jubilant squeak. “I can lift anything!” he exclaims to his brother, straining under the weight of a bicycle, proving that he can do hard labour, too. It is that tiny voice that will change so dramatically when one night Saroo finds himself on a train being transported ­thousands of kilometres, to Kolkata no less, in a carriage with barred windows.

Escaping, he wanders for days, alone and small against the vastness of a burnt metropolis – a movement from sweet, bucolic upbringing to grim isolation that feels like a sledgehammer of ­sensation, at times paradoxically beautiful and adventurous. When Saroo is most trapped, his liberation arrives: an Australian couple (David Wenham and a red-permed Nicole Kidman) want to adopt him. Except that it never quite feels like a liberation; they seem more like thieves.

Nevertheless, the advantage of ­growing up in a well-off Australian household pays off when Saroo, “20 years later” and played by Dev Patel, emerges glistening from the Tasman Sea like a hairier Ursula Andress. It’s a strange introduction, and marks the point at which Lion starts to discard the impressionistic textures of its introduction.

The narrative thrust from here consists of a tired Saroo looking at his computer, consumed by memories of his ­childhood. With nothing but phonetic clues, he trawls the internet for a way back home. It gives our hero purpose, but the film begins losing momentum. Despite all the anxiety of Saroo’s yearning, it becomes clear we’re headed towards an inevitable reunion, a destiny that can never match the thumbscrew uncertainty of Lion’s opening act. The film treats loss viscerally and longing cheaply.

Regardless of its cynicism, this tactic seems to work on audiences, judging by the trumpeting around me in the theatre. But I will admit only to a mild clenching of the jaw, and not much else. ••

IN CINEMAS NOW

This article was first published in the January 28, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 

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