I had certain expectations of ‘Lion’ before I saw it. Films based on true stories must always be taken with a pinch of salt in my opinion. Whilst there are elements of realism and truthfulness found within the narrative and the characters of the film, there is no doubt that cinematic liberties must be taken in order to provide audiences with an engaging experience. This may take the form of character actions differing from reality, as well as event duration and its dramatic impact. For example, when discussing ‘Captain Phillips’, Tom Hanks stated that he told the real Captain Phillips ‘I’m going to say things you never said and do things you never did’ in order to compress a story in order to heighten the possible intensity or emotional impact of a story.
That being said, I see no problem in this tampering of reality, because overall, film as a medium isn’t reality. If the dramatization of a story that reaches the mass audience is the most efficient way of highlighting a social or political message to people, then why not? As long as these changes do not dramatically affect the truth of the story or disrespect it in any way, then I look forward to films based on a true story. And after seeing Lion, I can safely say that not only does the film do the incredible true story justice, it also genuinely made me interested in learning about the deprived lives of children in the world, which still occurs heavily today.
For a first feature film directorial debut, Garth Davis should be commended for his incredible storytelling and direction. Lion tells the story of Saroo Brierley, who we first meet as a young child (Sunny Pawar) growing up in India. Saroo looks up to and aspires to be like his older brother Guddu, with the two having an extremely tight bond. One night, on their way to work, Saroo is separated from Guddu at a train station. Through a series of circumstances in which we share with Saroo, he ends up lost from his family, eventually being taken to an orphanage in Calcutta. From there he is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Saroo grows up with his adopted parents in Australia, where we see him grow into a young man (Dev Patel). It is at this point in the narrative that Saroo begins to remember his life back home and sets out on an impossible task to find his family. There is a lot more to the second half, such as Saroo dealing with a romantic relationship with Lucy (Rooney Mara) and his troubled adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), yet I believe that the less you know about Saroo’s journey, the more emotional and engaging this film will be.
For me, one of the most crucial elements in successfully conveying to audiences that a situation has indeed occurred in reality, is the performance of the actors involved with the production, crafting effective portrayals of true subjects that demonstrate pure emotion and represent the films themes and messages. For me, Lion contains some incredible performances which truly gripped me, and I found myself genuinely caring about the characters in the film. These performances have clearly been recognised, with an Oscar nomination for Actor and Actress in a Supporting role going to Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman respectively. Yet these are not the only two actors in the film that shine. Sunny Pawar must be congratulated for an incredible performance as young Saroo. The trailers to Lion barely show young Saroo, maybe to highlight the more recognisable stars of the film, so I went into the film confused as to why Dev Patel only was seen as a supporting role. I was shocked to discover that Pawar and Patel share about half the role each, with Pawar portraying an incredibly sympathetic and vulnerable child who we find funny, charming and we honestly empathise with and care about. It is an enormous responsibility that Pawar has, as his performance provides a basis for the understanding and care we feel for Saroo, which Pawar demonstrates perfectly through the almost traumatic experience that Saroo faces. And the brilliant portrayal of Saroo continues with Dev Patel. Patel has proven time and time again in films such as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ that he can tackle a variety of roles and genres. Here, he is at his best in my opinion. He is likeable, caring and sympathetic but he is not perfect. He has certain outbursts which show his torment coming back to haunt him from his past, building layers onto an already complex character.
Further to this, the rest of the cast are amazing, particularly Nicole Kidman. What’s so great about Lion is its ability to engage with audiences on a number of different levels, such as age and roles. Kidman plays a Mother, and whilst that seems simple, it is perhaps the most challenging yet rewarding role that a woman will experience in her life. Kidman captures the unconditional love and pure care that Sue (Saroo’s and Mantosh’s adoptive Mother) feels for her sons, creating possibly the most relatable character in the film. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t biologically related, as Kidman states in a heartfelt conversation with Saroo in my favourite scene of the film. All that matters is that she loves her boys, and I honestly believe that Kidman couldn’t have portrayed this any better. David Wenham also is believable at Saroo’s adoptive Father John, who is a strong support for Kidman’s role and together they create a caring couple that shows the positive effect adoption can have on the many deprived children around the world.
Rooney Mara is also fantastic in the film. Her character Lucy is a true driving force to Saroo in order to encourage him to search for his family which at first seems an impossible task. Lucy is a kind and encouraging woman, and is critical to the narrative. Mara’s and Patel’s on screen chemistry is believable and there is a portrayal of a true romance here, another reason why this true story has been adapted so effectively. As mentioned before, Saroo’s past certainly affects him in the present day, but the past is even more troublesome for his adoptive brother Mantosh. Divian Ladwa doesn’t have much screen time in the film, yet he provides one of the most emotional roles in the film. We are unsure of his past, yet it is clear it has been difficult and traumatic for Mantosh. He has outbursts that are almost scary, as we wonder what he has gone through as a child to get to this state of anxiety and disarray. He was to me the most sympathetic character of the film, as he represented the thousands of innocent children that grow up, deprived of family and care, leading them down a darker path in life. Ladwa’s performance almost had me crying at one point, proving how effective his performance was. There wasn’t a single bad performance in the entire film, even the roles of the people Saroo encounters as a child, building an incredible story that I was engrossed in.
Whilst I feel the performances are the strongest element of the film, that’s not all. The cinematography is stunning, with many establishing and extreme long shots highlighting the enormous scale of the locations Saroo is lost in. We are then guided into the environment down within the cities and on the streets, with the camera seeming to be angled from Saroo’s point of view as a child. This allowed us to empathise with young Saroo, as we feel alone and lost with him, feeling tiny in a dangerous world. There is an incredible sense of world building as well. There is an extremely high level of verisimilitude within the settings of the film, which make it more realistic and tangible within the film, leading the audiences to feel as if we are taking the journey of discovery with Saroo. What I loved was that Saroo had visions throughout the film of his family, showing that even though they were’t together he was connected to them through love and through memory, which made for some of the film’s most emotional moments. There is also an incredible and emotional score that runs through the film, as well as an amazing song recorded by Sia ‘Never Give Up’ which really highlights a key theme of the film.
Throughout this review, I have barely mentioned about Saroo’s actual search for his family, and that’s because I don’t want to give away what happens. What I will say is that the use of Google Earth is key in the story of Saroo’s journey. The film really demonstrates how technology has advanced and that is in fact a benefit. There are so many films nowadays that highlight the negatives of technology, yet here, without these amazing tools available to us, Saroo would have no chance of even beginning to look for his family. We have to remember that this is a true story, and it’s unbelievable to me that what happens in the film, occurred in real life. People may have issues with the way that the film portrays the critical main plot points through dramatization, yet for me they were extremely effective and I certainly wanted to Saroo to succeed. For me, the film wasn’t melodramatic as some critics have criticised it for. I found the film to have raw emotion that really affected me. It’s an extremely sad film, and even though it has a PG rating, I believe that this isn’t for children, and that the film should have been a 12A.
Overall, Lion was an incredible film. The examination of Saroo’s life is able to convey emotion effectively to audiences, as well as highlighting the issue of child poverty that still exists today. There is truly good intentions behind and in front of the camera, perhaps being one of the most socially relevant films nominated for Best Pictures at the Oscars this year. Whilst some believe that the first half of the film is too slow, for me it was incredibly well paced, filled with memorable performances and interesting situations that are explored. Throughout the film, we see a deep and meaningful relationship between Saroo and his family, even though they aren’t actually together. It’s still difficult to believe that the events in the film are based on a true story, but that is what makes the story all the more remarkable. I would definitely recommend watching Lion in the future, as it is a truly special film. I would need to see it again to see if the emotional impact holds up, so I can’t call it a perfect film yet, but it is certainly worth a watch.
I give Lion 9 out of 10