A very, very long way home: Lion

Lion (2016)

Despite the extraordinary story that it tells and a great beginning, Lion is an uneven drama that makes up for its flaws with a beautiful ending

Lion


Di­rect­ed by Garth Davis. Screen­play by Luke Davis, based on “A Long Way Home” by Sa­roo Brier­ley and Lar­ry But­trose. Star­ring Sun­ny Pawar, Dev Pa­tel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kid­man, David When­ham, Ab­hishek Bharate, Priyan­ka Bose, Di­vian Lad­wa, Ke­shav Jad­hav, Deep­ti Naval, Tan­nishtha Chat­ter­jee and Nawazud­din Sid­diqui.

Lion is a de­cent but ir­reg­u­lar film about an ex­tra­or­di­nary real sto­ry. Based on Sa­roo Brierley’s mem­oir A Long Way Home (ghost­writ­ten by Lar­ry But­trose), it has the per­fect ma­te­r­i­al for a time­less clas­sic, yet even so, af­ter a strong first hour, it un­for­tu­nate­ly be­comes lost, ex­pos­ing its glar­ing lack of enough sub­stance to fill two hours. I know it must be a chal­lenge to re­trace and de­pict the character’s real-life steps which ba­si­cal­ly con­sist­ed of in­ter­net re­search on Google Earth — some­thing that, let’s be hon­est, is not ex­act­ly vi­su­al­ly com­pelling. But in an at­tempt to cre­ate an ar­ti­fi­cial con­flict, Lion near­ly col­laps­es be­fore reach­ing an emo­tive end­ing that will sim­ply make most peo­ple for­get the drag that came right be­fore.

Di­rect­ed by Garth Davis (in his fea­ture de­but), the film re­counts Saroo’s life since he was five years old in 1986, liv­ing with his moth­er Kam­la (Priyan­ka Bose), his old­er broth­er Gud­du (Ab­hishek Bharate) and his lit­tle sis­ter in Khand­wa, In­dia. Back then, Kam­la worked car­ry­ing rocks while Gud­du and Sa­roo liked to sneak into (and jump off) freight trains to steal coal and trade for milk. One day, Gud­du is leav­ing for a week to work lift­ing bales of hay in an­oth­er city, and Sa­roo asks him to take him along. Gud­du agrees, but an un­for­tu­nate in­ci­dent traps Sa­roo on a mov­ing pas­sen­ger train that ends up about 1600 miles away in the city of Cal­cut­ta, where he is forced to sur­vive on his own and try to find a way back home.

If a brief syn­op­sis like this makes the sto­ry sound com­mon­place, it is every­thing but that. In fact, it is so un­be­liev­able (the way only real sto­ries are) that I pre­fer not to give away any more de­tails (if you don’t know them al­ready). The film’s first hour is by far the best, show­ing the sad pover­ty in which Saroo’s fam­i­ly lives and the sweet af­fec­tion the two broth­ers have for each oth­er. Af­ter Sa­roo gets lost, Davis evokes with great sen­si­bil­i­ty the nerve-rack­ing de­spair of a child alone in the mid­dle of ur­ban chaos and hu­man in­dif­fer­ence, ex­hibit­ing an im­pres­sive con­trol of his nar­ra­tive through most­ly pow­er­ful im­ages and with a won­der­ful score by Dustin O’Halloran and Hausch­ka that uses a lot of dis­so­nant sounds.

As Sa­roo, Sun­ny Pawar de­liv­ers a re­mark­able per­for­mance, mak­ing us share the character’s ter­ror, sad­ness and even clev­er­ness, like when Sa­roo re­al­izes that some­one who ap­pears to be help­ing him may not be trust­wor­thy at all. In this sense, it is nice to ob­serve how Lion es­chews the temp­ta­tion of show­ing every­one who runs across him as one-di­men­sion­al­ly evil. So even if we meet a car­toon­ish po­lice­man who tries to kid­nap him or an un­re­li­able woman who wants to sell him to a pe­dophile, there are also those who help him for no ul­te­ri­or mo­tives, like a man who takes him to the po­lice or a woman who finds a fam­i­ly to adopt him — and Davis does a sol­id job to por­tray in an al­ways flu­id man­ner all that hap­pens to Sa­roo along many years.

But then the film jumps 20 years ahead, and every­thing changes (for the worst). Now, if you don’t want to read about any­thing that is in­tro­duced at this point of the nar­ra­tive, just skip to the last para­graph. Played by Dev Pa­tel, Sa­roo is now a grown-up man who lives in Aus­tralia with an adop­tive fam­i­ly and seems to have for­got­ten about his past. Af­ter those mem­o­ries come rush­ing back to him, the film de­cides that it should cre­ate con­flict at any cost, and so Sa­roo be­comes an ag­gres­sive jerk to­wards his broth­er, quits his job, re­fus­es to see his adop­tive par­ents again and treats his girl­friend Lucy (Rooney Mara) in the worst way pos­si­ble be­cause she doesn’t fuck­ing know what it is like how every­day his moth­er screams his name. Re­al­ly.

Mara, by the way, is com­plete­ly wast­ed in a use­less role. Not based on any real-life char­ac­ter, Lucy has one func­tion and one func­tion only: to be a ro­man­tic in­ter­est for the con­flict­ed hero. She doesn’t seem to have any per­son­al­i­ty of her own and af­ter ut­ter­ing an un­be­liev­able “I’ll be here,” she sim­ply van­ish­es and is nev­er seen again. Nicole Kid­man, on the oth­er hand, plays the most fas­ci­nat­ing char­ac­ter in the en­tire film, Saroo’s adop­tive moth­er Sue Brier­ley, who she em­bod­ies as a strong woman guid­ed by faith and con­vic­tion to give so much love to those trou­bled chil­dren — and the scene in which Sue con­fides her true mo­ti­va­tions to Sa­roo is a touch­ing mo­ment that im­press­es for Kidman’s sen­si­tive per­for­mance.

Run­ning the risk of look­ing like an un­abashed ad­ver­tise­ment for Google (which it ac­tu­al­ly does at a cer­tain point) and some­times giv­ing in to sil­ly clichés like vi­sions and hal­lu­ci­na­tions, Lion makes up for its flaws with a pro­found­ly mov­ing end­ing that will prob­a­bly bring a tor­rent of tears to the eyes of most view­ers. It is in­deed beau­ti­ful and of­fers the sort of cathar­sis that can be ir­re­sistible for those who like big emo­tions. But it shouldn’t keep us from re­al­iz­ing that it doesn’t re­al­ly do jus­tice to the in­cred­i­ble real sto­ry it tells.

March 1st, 2017


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