Cinematic Releases: Lion (2016) - Reviewed

Former fine artist and commercial director Garth Davis’ feature film debut Lion is the kind of true story that could have easily devolved into schmaltzy melodrama and although it does dip into it periodically, the film still manages to tug at the viewer’s heartstrings and then some.  Based on the true life account of Saroo Brierley (played as a child by Sunny Pawar before Slumdog Millionaire’s Dev Patel plays the adult), it’s the tragic tale of a five year old boy who is accidentally torn away from his family when he finds himself locked in a train which travels across the country to Kolkata.  Almost like two films wrapped into one, the first half consists of the boy’s harrowing journey through the slums of Kolkata before being adopted into an Australian family while the second half concerns the now adult Saroo driving himself mad in a desperate search for his biological family.  

Produced by the Weinsteins and co-starring Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara, Lion is obviously an Oscar bait contender and while some of it does come across as heavy handed, the film is generally successful at getting you to reach for Kleenex to wipe away the tears from your eyes.  The opening act is arguably stronger than the second as we share in Saroo’s sense of terrifying isolation and displacement where his journey into adulthood tends to meander with Mara in a frankly thankless role and Kidman serving up the tearful Oscar worthy monologues.  That said, the visual design by cinematographer Greig Fraser and mournful score composed by Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran are all uniformly superb and work to evoke the inner turmoil of Saroo before, during and after his separation from his family.  

Watching the bilingual Lion, I was reminded of not just Slumdog due to Patel’s casting but Gandu came to mind as well for turning the cameras on the impoverished underbelly of Kolkata warts and all.  Much like Oliver Stone’s own Heaven and Earth, the overwhelmingly thick saturation of poverty and endurance tests enacted upon the central protagonist stand in direct contrast to the otherworldliness of his/her eventual integration into civilized society with a fair balance illustrated between destitution and wealth.  Though the film is jam packed with scenic widescreen beauty, Lion does a pretty solid job making Kolkata look and feel as unpleasant as humanly possible where danger seems to lurk around every corner and almost every character the young Saroo encounters has an ulterior motive.  

Get off my back!

Some have dubbed Lion a crowd pleaser which is true to a point as the first hour of the film is so steeped in the Hell of Saroo’s rootless existence in Kolkata that you’d have to be heartless to not be affected by his ordeal on some level.  What could well have easily gone the slacktivist route employed by films like Rosewater, but remarkably the film stays just on this side of the tracks by effectively conveying Saroo’s experience and his sense of inescapable alienation.  Despite some of the shortcomings in the less compelling second half of the picture, overall Lion comes recommended but don’t say I didn’t warn you about keeping trusty handkerchiefs on hand.


 - Andrew Kotwicki