Movie Review: Lion.
Lion is an emotionally powerful story about identity and family that earns all of its big moments.
Full disclosure, I did not want to watch Lion. Of all the Oscar nominated films, for some reason this is the one I never “had time” to see. I thought he film was just going to be a manipulative tear-jerker. Boy, was I cheating myself out of an experience! Of the nominees so far, Lion has left the biggest impression with me.
Lion, starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman, is the story of a young Indian boy who loses his family, only to end up with two families. The film, directed by Garth Davis, never hangs on your heart-strings, but instead uses subtle cues to convey the powerful emotions roiling just under the surface of the story.
Saroo is a five year old boy from a small village in India. Trying to keep up with his older brother who is searching for work, he falls asleep at a train station and soon becomes hopelessly lost. He suffers years of homelessness before finally ending up in state custody, eventually being adopted by an Australian couple. Many years later, he becomes haunted by the memory of his lost family, and heads back to India to find his home.
Eye in the Sky.
The cinematography in Lion is wonderful. Garth Davis uses every shot in his arsenal, and pairs them expertly to the moments in his film. The shot that recurs the most often is the long close up, capturing the emotions of his subjects. This reliance on facial expression never feels manipulative or manufactured, mostly because Davis deftly varies his technique. The camera will go for an extreme close up as Saroo smells cooking from India he has not experienced in twenty years, and then change to a soaring wide aerial shot of his childhood village. The quality of the shots rival a nature documentary, and by the final scene you feel like you know Saroo’s home town as well as he does.
Tones of Home.
The score for Lion is another strong element. While there isn’t any one song that stands out, the film switches between ambient noise, orchestral tracks, and Indian pop music as needed. Like the cinematography, every sound serves the narrative and is kept varied to prevent emotional fatigue.
It Takes a Village.
The cast of Lion features strong performances, yet no one character dominates. While this is the story of Saroo, it is equally the story of the people who touched his life, for good or ill, and who made his long journey possible. His family, both biological and adopted, are of central importance to him, and you never lose sight of them. In a wonderful technique, adult Saroo (played with fine nuance by Dev Patel) often sees images of his birth family, especially his older brother Guddu, in dreams and waking fantasies. They’re never truly absent from his life.
I expected Nicole Kidman, who plays Saroo’s adoptive mother, to steal the scenes she was in and dominate the film, but Kidman turns in a wonderfully restrained performance. It is a smaller role than you would anticipate for her, but she is a consummate professional. Likewise, I figured that Dev Patel’s role would be larger than it was, and that the studio was demoting him to supporting actor status just to have a better shot at an Oscar. Like Kidman, Patel never overplays his performance, letting the natural rhythm of the story take him into and out of the limelight.
My highest praise for Lion is that this is a film, in all aspects, that is not afraid to let the story live and breathe on its own terms. It could have been an over-the-top emotional roller coaster, constantly trying to remind you of how profound or important it was. Lion never does this. The cinematography, the performances, and the music all serve the story organically. When this film brings a tear to your eye with a poignant moment, beautiful shot, or strong piece of dialogue, it feels completely natural. Even the credits, which uses actual footage of the real life Saroo, feels precisely at home in the film, giving emotional closure to the piece.
I’m sorry that I dragged my feet for so long with Lion. This is a wonderful film, pregnant with emotion, but never self importance. The film will certainly make you misty-eyed, and it will have done so on its own merits. I heartily recommend it.