We first see Garth Davis’s Lion through the eyes of a child, and we continue to see it that way for the rest of the film. Saroo, our hero, grows a few feet and ages twenty years after the first hour, but his perspective never really changes. He’s lost, and he wants to get home. He finds his way there, two decades later, using Google Earth, which makes his story not just a feat of human perseverance but also technological ingenuity. It’s tragic, often astounding, and eventually uplifting. So is Lion. It just isn’t much of a movie.
Like all the best true stories, Saroo’s seems impossible. Davis can’t believe it either. As a commercials director, you’d imagine his instinct would be to shrink it down, boil away it’s excesses, distil it. Instead, he expands outwards. Most of Lion relies on the enormity of time and distance and space; how much can change over two decades, how far away you can be from home, how it might feel for a tiny child to totter, alone, into the yawning mouth of a train station tunnel. Davis is so fascinated with the scale of this story that he never steps back far enough to see that there isn’t enough of it to fill two hours. He locates the filmable portions of Saroo’s life and stretches them until they’re feature-length, losing a lot of clarity in the process.
Lion opens in India, where Saroo (in this half played by adorable newcomer Sunny Pawar) boards a decommissioned train with his brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and through a series of unfortunate events finds himself in the slums of Calcutta, several days and 1600 miles away from home. He doesn’t speak the local Bengali language. He’s lost. And in his bewilderment, Davis finds a lot of dramatic value. The unflinching eye cast towards poverty in India lingers on children scavenging through garbage dumps and sleeping on bits of cardboard. It isn’t difficult to garner sympathy for an image like that, and it might feel manipulative in another context, but the idea that there are so many homeless children in this part of the world that they’re able to form gangs is difficult to shake. If you live in the capital-W West, which if you’re reading this you probably do, such rampant squalor feels alien. The nonchalance of those on the periphery of it does, too. While Saroo is trying to solicit help at the station’s ticket desk, he’s constantly being swatted aside and chastised by the people in the queue. To them, he’s just another beggar. An annoyance. Davis does a fine job of making Calcutta feel as hostile and dispassionate to the audience as it inevitably did to Saroo.
I don’t know how long Saroo spent on the streets, and if Lion makes that clear I missed it. But it was longer than an hour, certainly, so it’s difficult to check the required boxes without condensing most of his time in India to an almost cartoonishly unlucky string of horrific events. While he’s sleeping on his faithful sheet of cardboard (he eventually takes to carrying it around under his arm) he’s chased off by a child-snatching mob; the pleasant-seeming woman in a sari who gives him food and a place to sleep tries to pawn him to a lecherous middle-man; in the orphanage where he eventually finds himself, children are taken away in the night for God-knows-what purpose. When they return, all they can do is literally bang their heads against the walls.
It’s from this orphanage that Saroo is eventually adopted by John and Sue Brierly (David Wenham and an excellent Nicole Kidman) and whisked away to Tasmania for an outdoorsy upbringing. We re-join him twenty years later as he leaves for Melbourne to study hotel management. Things have changed for Saroo. He’s outgoing, well-adjusted, and played now by Dev Patel (also very good). He has long hair and a shaggy beard. Before long, he also has a remarkably understanding girlfriend (Rooney Mara) and a group of mates who, once he confides in them about his heritage, help him devise a Google Earth-oriented scheme to find his way back home.
The scene in which Saroo is reminded of home (his buddies are cooking an Indian delicacy that he fantasised about eating as a boy; I have no idea if that really happened, but it still plays as remarkably contrived) contains one of my favourite exchanges in the movie. In it, Saroo explains to an astounded friend that his mother was an illiterate labourer (“She carried rocks?”, his friend asks, aghast), and it so perfectly encapsulates the cultural differences between where Saroo was and where he ends up that you can almost forgive the fact that very little else in this stretch of the film is particularly compelling. That’s partly inevitable. We know how this story ends, so the many, long scenes of Saroo poring over maps and his laptop feel like the movie biding its time. But the speed with which Saroo becomes self-destructively consumed by his quest feels bizarre. You’re obviously not supposed to assume that he had forgotten about his biological family until then, but I did. The movie doesn’t give you much reason to assume otherwise.
Twenty years is a long time, and Lion blinks it away. We’re presented with two distinct versions of the same character and supposed to colour the transition from one to the other ourselves. Some of it makes sense. Even as a street kid, Saroo was smart and resourceful. It isn’t surprising that he would make something of himself. But there’s simply too much emotional development to depict, so most of it is either omitted or communicated in shorthand. Saroo’s wavering mental health is directly proportionate to the length of his hair and beard. Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), Saroo’s adoptive brother, is wheeled into the plot whenever we need some context for how well Saroo has integrated himself into adult life; Mantosh was the kid in the orphanage who beat his head against the wall, and he still handles his trauma the same way. He has just a couple of scenes, and he’s only ever shown to be actively unreasonable or in the process of self-harm. Lion, rather oddly, vilifies him. Sue Brierly’s health and happiness have deteriorated as a result of Mantosh’s inability to process his abuse, and Saroo loudly resents him for it. But for much of the film’s second half, Saroo doesn’t seem any more in control of himself than Mantosh does. He damages his relationships, loses his job and obsesses himself into delirium. Maybe the hypocrisy is intentional, but it doesn’t feel it.
There’s a happy ending, though, of course – two, if you count the real-life credits footage of the mothers, adoptive and biological, finally meeting one another. And, look, I cried, like I assume everyone else probably did. Lion is sensitive, elegant and empathetic, but it’s not an amazing film – it does, however, tell an amazing human story, one that I don’t think is diminished by any technical shortcomings. How could it be, really? Lion is about the same thing life is: Love, and how far you’ll go for it.
There are worse things.
Enjoyed reading this review? Then you will probably like listening to us too so check out our podcast