Lion

January 27, 2017
Dev Patel in Lion (2016)
Dev Patel in Lion (2016)

There are two kinds of exotic in Lion – exotic India, all poverty and squalor; and exotic Tasmania with its rugged scenery and sporty lifestyles. Middle-class audiences in America and Europe can indulge in a double whammy: feeling sympathy for the Indians and envy for the Tasmanians.

This is a first feature for Australian director, Garth Davis, who has enjoyed a successful career in commercials. While I’m not enough of a snob to suggest this precludes him from making a great movie, Lion is a highly professional, uninspired piece of work. It’s a happy weepie that makes a virtue of predictability.

When a story is built around a man’s obsessive search for his real home we always know how it will end, even though it takes about two hours for the cathartic resolution to arrive. Viewers shed tears of relief as they glance at their watches.

The most engaging part of the film is the first hour spent with five-year-old Saroo (played with amazing assurance by newcomer, Sunny Pawa), who lives with his family in a small village in Uttar Pradesh. Saroo enjoys a close relationship with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Their mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose) supports her family by breaking rocks in a quarry, while the boys supplement her income by stealing coal and scavenging coins from railway carriages.

It is on one of these scavenging trips that Saroo becomes separated from his brother, falls asleep in an empty train carriage and is transported 1,400 kilometres to Calcutta, where the local language is Bengali, not Hindi. After various adventures intended to demonstrate how dangerous it is to be a homeless child in India, Saroo enters an orphanage, from which he is adopted by a couple in Tasmania.

Soon Saroo is flying off to meet his new mother and father – Sue and John Brierley, played by Nicole Kidman with a daggy red wig, and David Wenham doing his best interpretation of a good-hearted Aussie bloke. He will shortly be joined by another Indian boy, the deeply disturbed Mantosh, who will become his adopted brother.

At this point we leap forward 20 years. Saroo, played by a surprising beefy Dev Patel, is lunching with his adoring parents before leaving for Melbourne to start a course in hotel management. With beard and long hair he looks conspicuously lion-like. Mantosh, still disturbed, is living in a shack somewhere along the coast.

Saroo tells his newfound friends in the hospitality school that he’s not really Indian, and always supports the Aussie cricket team. He meets an American student named Lucy (Rooney Mara), and they fall in love. The turning point comes one night at a party when he goes into the kitchen and finds himself staring fixedly at an Indian sweet, a jalebi. In a Proustian moment the past comes flooding back. Saroo is remembering his village, his mother and his brother. He suddenly needs to know who he is. He wants to visit the old hometown and see his real family.

Saroo’s quest for identity becomes an overwhelming preoccupation. He quits his job and grows estranged from Lucy and his Tasmanian parents. If this wasn’t a true story the sudden emergence of this obsession and the intensity of Saroo’s need to find his roots would feel a trifle unrealistic.

Fortunately, as we live in the digital age, today’s distressed seeker needn’t go trekking all over India, merely consult Google Earth. One hopes Google has paid for product placement because the film acts as a lavish advertisement for the ever-popular search engine.

This slender tale is fleshed out by the young Saroo’s adventures on the streets and the older Saroo’s emotional turbulence. The best, most affecting speech is given to Kidman’s Sue Brierley, who explains to her son the reasons she adopted two Indian boys. It wasn’t because of infertility, but through a heartfelt philosophical commitment.

Sue’s convictions serve as a counterweight to the obvious difficulties posed by international, interracial adoption. Mantosh is an example of everything that can go wrong, but Saroo – until his fateful encounter with a jalebi – has been a model son. His breakdown comes as a shock to the Brierleys, who gradually accept that Saroo needs to solve the puzzle of his childhood before he can lead a normal adult life.

Once again, the message of understanding between different cultures and different generations would seem completely corny if we didn’t know this was a true story. If it still feels corny this may be partly due to a musical score that underlines every poignant moment. The music is conventional rather than heavy-handed, but it adds to the feeling that Davis is leading us straight down the middle of the road.

This drive towards mediocrity is the frustrating aspect of a film that is always watchable and occasionally moving. But is this good enough in an Oscar season that has thrown up innovative productions such as Jackie and La La Land? With Lion we might be watching a telemovie. It’s another misdemeanour against the cinema committed under the label “based on a true story” – an incantation that reduces the magical powers of the screen to a mere imitation of life.

Lion
Directed by Garth Davis
Written by Luke Davies, after a memoir by Saroo Brierley
Starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Divian Ladwa
Australia/USA, rated PG, 118 mins

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28th January, 2017.