TIFF Film Review: LION
Not every extraordinary story makes for memorable filmmaking, but rest assured that if it contains even the hint of heartwarming ending Hollywood will be there to dramatize it regardless of the desirability of the project. Such is the rather unfortunate case of the movie Lion, which apparently wowed some audiences and critics after its premiere at TIFF last week. I was not so impressed. The film contains one interesting bout of technological triangulation and is otherwise an extended tourism infomercial. The rest is filler to what could have been an interesting three minute evening news segment.
Familiarity with the trailer will tell you what the movie is about—and essentially how it ends. At the young age of five, young Saroo is separated from his family in Eastern India when he accidentally boards a train that takes him thousands of miles across the Continent. He is eventually rescued by officials and adopted by a Tasmanian family but, twenty-five years later, and with the aid of Google Earth and some clever use of his vague memories from childhood, he sets out to find his real family.
Spoilers: the outcome is clearly never in doubt (would the film had been made if Saroo’s story had ended with him giving up in failure?). Given that you know how it’s going to end, the interesting part of this movie should have been its journey and not its destination but Lion, directed by first time director Garth Davis, sets out on a rocky path at best.
The first problem is that the sequence of the boy getting lost is extended beyond what is necessary. It’s not just that the audience will struggle with the mostly Hindi and/or Bengali dialogue, it’s that the segment serves no clear purpose other than to fill the run time. You keep hoping or expecting that, Slumdog Millionaire style, each of the morsels from the story of Saroo’s childhood will be used with wit to fill in the puzzle of where he hails from. Instead, the grownup Saroo (played by Dev Patel) returns to a single symbol (a water tower in a trains station), while the rest of the backdrop is irrelevant to his quest.
I suppose that segment could have served to explain the harsh conditions that Saroo faced as a child in India in the 1980s, and to highlight the problem of kidnappings in the country. But one sequence is enough, and the story is either about his deeply personal journey or about Indian socioeconomics. The film isn’t big enough for both.
When Saroo is finally rescued he is taken in by a generous family from Australia, portrayed by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The couple raises Saroo and in the blink of a cinematic eye he is a tall, lean, accomplished young man with a hot girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and not a care in the world besides his adopted brother, who grew up far more troubled than Saroo did and is there mostly to make sure that Kidman impresses us with her ability to cry and suffer at will.
The young adult’s life is idyllic until one day, without any particular dramatic catalyst, he becomes determined to reconnect with his real family. Eventually passing references are made to his feelings of guilt over what could be his family’s plight back home, but it’s a tad late. Of course he’d be motivated to reunite with them but it seems like he didn’t care about it at all until the easier technology with which to do so was available.
And while it is always a pleasure to watch Nicole Kidman on screen, the story really is just about Patel’s character and, like Rooney Mara, the Australian Oscar winner seems to be added to show only how progressive Australians are. Look, they like curry, adopt Indian babies from poverty, and are immersed in their culture! They also add little to nothing to the central conflict.
You will be undoubtedly impressed at Saroo’s determination, of his clever tracing of his own steps as a child to locate the village whose name he could not quite remember but which he is sure existed. Most of all, his persistence is genuinely moving—he basically had to comb the subcontinent town by town until he found what he was looking for. As an ad for Google Earth and its prowess, the film is an A+.
But those feats, while impressive, do not make for compelling cinema. It’s as if you watched a movie not about Columbus’ journey, or why he embarked on it, but about him sitting down under a lamp to look at maps to chart his journey (after a forty minute sequence of him as a child playing with toy boats). The fundamental problem for Lion is that this amazing story, while heartwarming and inspiring, simply does not have the chops to fill up the one-hundred and thirty minutes of runtime, and, while remarkable, is surprisingly uninteresting.