True tales of triumph and survival are both wonderfully energizing stories to share and difficult to bring to screen without sanitizing it all in exchange for making the message “crisp.” Lion, while certainly sharing the joys and wins of Saroo Brierley’s life, doesn’t shy away from the pains and missteps either. It allows the story to be a little less shiny and a tad more real which enhances its uplifting effect nicely.
Dev Patel (The Man Who Knew Infinity) shares the main role with the young Sunny Pawar. I’d have liked to have seen one or two physical movement/gesture similarities with the two to tie it all together, but each does a great job in their roles as Saroo, separated by 25 years in time. And Nicole Kidman (Genius) delivers an emotionally complex performance that we don’t entirely get to understand, but we do connect with. Rooney Mara (Kubo and the Two Strings), though she starts as a rather interesting character, ends up rather tangential, which felt a shame as there was something there and in her interactions I wanted to understand better.
As his first major film, Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) did a great job of tackling the scope of this story and making it work. His lack of experience, I think, had him take some obvious routes and make some cliche-ish choices with the production. For instance, the adaptation of Brierley’s book by Davies was a wanting… the choice of how to tell the tale was less effective for me than, say Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire; an unavoidable thought given it is also starred Patel. Very different stories to be sure, but with similar problems: a lifetime to cover and the intricate past that influenced it. And, as mentioned, there were clearly complexities with Brierley family that we only glimpse but never fully grasp. Additionally, Davis allowed the music to be too heavy and intrusive at times; a veritable sledgehammer to beat on your emotions rather than a subtle clue to or support of them.
This is undoubtedly a tale that will resonate for many people. It makes all things feel possible, even in the face of strife. It is also eye-opening in terms of some of the issues, and will sober you during these holidays of excess. But mostly it will have you admire the ability of Brierley to survive through both inner and physical strength. Though his journey almost cost him everything, the result was a more complete sense of self and life. Any weakness in the movie cannot diminish the value of the story itself… it just means it shouldn’t be winning any major awards this year.