Movie Review: LION – the magnificent first half cast a long shadow across the second, but the overall result is deeply satisfying

I’ve described a couple of movies as being “of two halves” – Room, most recently.  The phrase goes back to something football (soccer, to my readers here in the colonies) pundits say when describing a game where the first half is dominated by one team, and the second half dominated by the other.  It happens in movies too, mostly when the second half of a movie is not as strong as the first.  These movies generally have much the same structure, usually a radical change at the midpoint.  In Room, it’s the escape of Joy and Jack, in Lion, it’s the jump in time from 1986 to 2006.  In the case of Room, while the narrative changes, the second half is still mostly engaging.  In Lion, the result is a lot less interesting.  Less interesting in comparison to what comes before, and I provide this caveat because the first half of the movie is rock solid – entertaining, compelling, and thoroughly engaging.

Lion tells the true story – as true as any movie based on real events can be – of Saroo Brierly (played as an adult by Chappie’s Dev Patel, and as a child by Sunny Pawar), a five year old kid growing up in poverty in the city of Khandwa, India, his estrangement from his family which leads to his adoption by a couple in Tasmania, played here by Nicole Kidman in a fine performance, and David Wenham.  20 years later, a period of angst creates within him an obsessive desire to be reunited with the family he lost, at the risk of losing those dear to him.

In doing some research for this review, I’ve discovered that in many cases adopted children go through periods of existential depression (and in some cases, this is a lifelong condition) and experience feelings of low self esteem, making it difficult to form strong emotional bonds with others.  As someone who was not adopted, I can’t begin to understand the complexity of this kind of identity crisis, but it makes sense to me, especially when the children are of a different ethnic makeup to the adoptive parents.  In addition to this, the natural urge to seek out biological relatives can cause distress and guilt on the part of the adoptee, particularly in not wishing to harm the relationship with the adoptive parents.  Many adoptees struggle with the fear that the people who raised them will feel betrayed.  This is what the second half of the movie explores, deep, meaningful themes that can’t be dismissed.  Unfortunately, it follows an outstanding first half, and pales in comparison.

I watched Lion in flight on my way back from Miami – not a butchered, family-friendly version, I should add, but on my tablet – a review copy I’d received earlier this year that I completely forgot about.  When I started the movie and heard the dialogue was in Hindi, I waited to see when the subtitles kicked in – they never did.  I went through the entire first half of the movie understanding not a word of what was said.  But as proof of how terrific this section is, I didn’t care.  The story of 5 year old Saroo is every bit an odyssey in the classic sense of the word.  Saroo and his older, protective brother Guddu, spend their days riding steam trains, stealing coal to trade for milk and food for their family.  This Dickensian first half is a complex marvel, something where all the elements are so perfect individually, their combination is nothing short of must-see viewing.  Greig Fraser’s photography of the many different faces of India is breathtaking, the emotional content runs deep like an ocean – especially in the early scenes between Saroo and Guddu, but by far and away, the jewel in this movie’s crown is young Sunny Pawar.  In a year when I’ve seen some terrific performances by kids, this is the best I’ve seen, maybe the best child performance I’ve ever seen – certainly for someone this young.  Frankly, he’s quite astonishing, and carries this weighty first half of the movie on his shoulders.  There’s no point in me recounting the various stages of his journey, which takes him 2,000 km from his home to Calcutta, a teeming metropolis of strangers and dangers, to the prison-like orphanage he is eventually rescued from.  I absolutely loved this section, despite it not being subtitled.  It’s perfectly clear what is happening, and I find that one doesn’t really need to understand the words, so long as they are delivered with the intent of the scenes that contain them.  This is the true value of the actor/director collaboration.  The only time I was slightly confused was during the intent of two characters Saroo encounters, then flees from, but even here, I didn’t need to know the exact reason Saroo is compelled to leave, only that his flight conveyed that sense of urgency, and it surely did.

In a way, it was sad to make that 20 year leap ahead, especially as the second half comes into its own.  Neither the story not the characters are ever as fascinating or engaging as that of young Saroo.  As a man in his mid twenties, I didn’t feel the same emotional connection that I did to his younger self.  Whereas the first half is a tiny epic, it’s mostly plot driven, as young Saroo goes from one situation to another – the second half is mostly all character-driven, and the trouble here is that 25 year old Saroo comes across as simply having a bad case of ennui.  Played by Dev Patel, the character exhibits many of the traits of an adopted child I described earlier, but the performance feels bland to me.  So too is Rooney Mara’s presence in the movie, almost to the point of pointlessness.  There was nothing about her character that interested me, and Luke Davies’s script can’t seem to find a truly important place for her.  When Saroo eventually comes clean to his equally bland circle of friends about his lost family, he’s given some basic instructions on how he might find them, but the movie takes a few detours before it gets there.  And that’s probably a good thing because once we get to that point, Saroo’s search doesn’t make for compelling viewing.  Portrayed in the movie, this section takes on the same kind of detective work seen in countless other movies that end up with a handmade map or chart on the wall so that the main character can be obsessively tortured, staring at it with the various markers, Post-Its and pins they have placed there.  It isn’t poorly done, but it’s a visual cliché that offers no actual drama.  The bigger moments in this movie are confined to the final few minutes where Saroo travels to the hometown he discovers in his online searches, and is finally reunited with his family.  This one scene contains the only real examples of true emotion in the second half, and while it’s to be expected given the context, it’s handled well by both Patel and director Garth Davis.  I found myself caught unexpectedly by the surge of emotions captured here, and must admit to feeling a lump in my throat and the sudden pooling of tears.

If you watch Lion, and you should, you may feel different about the second half than I did, but just to be clear, I didn’t dislike it, only thought that it lost out to a far superior first half, and a terrific performance.  I also liked the snapshots of the real Saroo and both his biological and adopted families that were captured during a 2012 visit, but it left me feeling a little disquieted.  After such a strong urge to find one’s actual family, and all the work and heartache that went into it, how does one leave it all behind to return to the only true home you know?  Is that need going to be satisfied forever, or will the guilt of betraying adoptive parents become guilt for once again leaving the “real” family behind?  I’m glad it isn’t an internal struggle I have to deal with.

And why is the movie called “Lion”?  I’ll leave it for you to find out.

4.0/5.0

© Andrew Hope, 2017

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