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Based on a story, a young boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar) gets separated from his brother and eventually winds up in an orphanage in Calcutta. Before long, he's taken in by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and years later, as a young man (Dev Patel), he sets out in search of the family he lost.
Films about adoption are often played with varying emotions going on. Some use it as a sort of fish-out-of-water comedy, others try to tell it from different perspectives, in other cases it's about the blending of family units and so on. With Lion, the story is split in two and gives a unique insight into the life before and the life after. Told through two actors - Dev Patel as the young man in search of his past and Sunny Pawar as the boy who lived it - Lion pulls no punches on its subject matter and gives a close-up of the disparate worlds we live in.
The first half of the story details how young Saroo became separated from his older brother, Guddu, in a train station near Khadwa and then manages to wind up in Calcutta - over a thousand kilometres from his home. Garth Davis' direction and Greig Fraser's cinematography here cleverly eschews the pops of colour you'd expect from a bustling Indian cityscape. It shows the grit, dirt and poverty but not in such a way that it becomes romanticised; it's more closer to a documentary than anything else. The journey continues on, as we see Saroo fall in with a group of street children, before he separates from them and has a truly chilling encounter with a predatory couple. Eventually, Saroo winds up in an orphanage and, some time after, the film moves towards the middle where Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are introduced.
Pawar's performance as the young Saroo is electric, and the film cleverly eschews dialogue in much of this sequence as it works in such broad, distinct tones that it's easy enough to follow without becoming lost or uninteresting. However, the film pumps the breaks heavily in the second half and ditches the fast pacing for a much more somber and dour examination of life with Saroo's adoptive parents. The film leaps forward twenty years to bring in Dev Patel, who's on his way to college and has built a life for himself in Tasmania that is entirely removed from what's come before. However, the hangover from his previous life is manifested by his adoptive brother, Mantosh, who still carries the emotional damage from it all. It makes for some stark moments, particularly when we see how Nicole Kidman and David Wenham's characters are coping with it.
The performances, up and down the cast list, are excellent and, barring the final ten minutes or so, none of the actors overplay the emotions. There's no Oscar reel scenery-chewing or the like, instead restraining themselves to make more for quieter, tender moments throughout. Patel does a good job of internalising the obvious turmoil his character feels, whilst Kidman is used sparingly but just enough to give context when necessary. Likewise, Wenham smartly underplays his character and doesn't give into theatricality or the like. Rooney Mara, however, feels like an after-thought of a character whilst Mantosh - played by Divian Ladwa - shows up for a few scenes, but gives a fascinating portrayal in all of them.
Where the film falters, however, is in the uneven pacing. As mentioned, the film is very much split in two, with the opening half catapulting the story along and then shifts gears into a deeper examination in the second half. More interesting, however, is how the film entirely jettisons the actual search for Saroo's biological family, instead choosing to focus on the declining relationships in his life because of it. While they work, you do get the sense that the film could have benefitted with a second half that was as energetic as the first. By the time the ending comes around, there is a sense that both Garth Davis' direction and Luke Davies' script is actively trying to squeeze the tears out of audience as hard as it can and quickly as it can.
Nevertheless, Lion is a rewarding character drama that features an honest examination of adoption, never shying away from the less-than-perfect moments of it. Despite some issues with pacing, it's a well made film.
Review by Brian Lloyd | 15:26 | Monday 16th January 2017 | Movie Review