What do you call a movie that has a great first act and a moving finale but bogs down on the way to that conclusion? In this case, you call it Lion. I say this with regret, because the true story it tells is remarkable and it’s a shame the film is flawed.
Lion spins a tale that would do credit to any author of fiction. It introduces us to a lovable 5-year-old boy named Saroo who lives in poverty with his mother, sister, and big brother in a small Indian village. Precocious to a fault and always wanting to help earn money for his family, he insists on accompanying his brother on a nighttime run. Predictably, he falls asleep on a railroad station platform and when he awakens, boards an empty train that suddenly roars to life, taking him more than a thousand miles away from home. He is lost in more ways than one: he doesn’t even speak Hindi, the local language, and cannot correctly pronounce the name of his hometown to those who want to help him. Eventually he is adopted by a kind Australian couple who raise him to manhood. Only then does he start to feel the pull of his past and wonder about trying to find his real family.
The little boy who plays Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is miraculously good; the camera loves him. Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are also good as his adoptive parents, and Dev Patel does a solid job as the adult Saroo. But this is where the movie sags. The dramatization of Saroo’s inner conflict is hazy and takes far too long to resolve. Rooney Mara has a thankless role as the young man’s girlfriend who, like us, tries to understand what’s going on inside his head as he torments himself wondering if he should pursue his origins.
Suffice it to say, the final sequence pulls out all the emotional stops and tears begin to flow. I’m a sucker for honest sentiment and wasn’t immune to this, but I still felt annoyed that it took so long to get to this point. Director Garth Davis has worked in television and won acclaim for his commercials but is a newcomer to feature films. Perhaps that accounts for this movie’s shortcomings, or perhaps the fault lies in Luke Davies’ screenplay. Many people in the audience I saw this with clearly loved Lion…but I did not. It has the makings of a wonderful movie and that leaves me all the more frustrated.