Having finished reading Saroo Brierley’s wonderfully written memoir Lion (originally published as A Long Way Home: A Memoir) just a couple of weeks ago (read my review of the book here), I felt it was high time that I watched Garth Davis’s multiple award-nominated film adaptation. And while I knew as I watched the film that it was good, well-deserving of the nominations (six by the Academy, including Best Picture), I just couldn’t shake the feeling that the book was considerably better. This isn’t exactly a rarity, but I’ve never been so jarred by the disparity as I was here – but that is likely due to the proximity between my having read the book, and then viewing the movie. That, and the fact that the book was particularly moving.
With that caveat in place, what about the film? This is Garth Davis’s first feature project, and he had the doubly hard tasks of working with a story that is already a part of the zeitgeist (Brierley’s story was quite extensively covered in the news media about five years ago – I’m going to link to the earliest story I could find on a quick search – warning, there are spoilers in the news story), and of directing an experienced cast (Oscar winner Nicole Kidman, and Oscar nominated Dev Patel and Rooney Mara). However, despite these challenges, Davis is up to the task. Between his directing and Greig Fraser’s sweeping cinematography, the movie excels visually and the acting is spot-on. This is especially impressive considering that the movie is basically two movies in one: half in India with newcomer Sunny Pawar as young Saroo, and half in Australia with Dev Patel as the adult Saroo.
Despite this need to double the work and the production, the film moves seamlessly from one world into the next. The extensive use of Hindi and Bengali where appropriate lends an air of credibility, and requires the audience to read a fair bit of subtitling, something that gives the film an art-house aesthetic. Active audience engagement is a must.
The cast, as I’ve mentioned above, is solid from top to bottom. Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel both shine (and were both nominated in the Supporting categories), but young Sunny Parwar steals the film. Not understanding Hindi, I can’t speak to whether or not his delivery was stilted, but it felt and looked natural to me, and he does an excellent job of acting naturally in front of the camera. When he’s scared and alone, yelling for help, it’s hard not to feel his fear. Abhishek Bharate, as Saroo’s elder brother Guddu, also has a strong turn in only his second feature. And as a bit of a movie geek, it was nice to see David Wenham as John Brierley (I prefer to remember him as Faramir from The Two Towers and The Return of the King than for the more recent and lamentable Iron Fist series).
The movie acts as something of a video postcard as well, showcasing the beauty of its two main locations: India and Tasmania. India’s vastly different geography flashes by as a series of views out of a train window, with longer scenes set both in Kolkata and Khandwa. Kolkata’s infamous slums play a large role in the time spent within the city, and are made even more frightening when considering that we’re seeing them from the viewpoint of a lost five-year-old boy. But somehow there is still a beauty in this haven of the poorest and most desperate of Western Bengal. Davis and Fraser are even able to make the stark sereness of Khandwa beautiful when seen through the eyes of Saroo, showing that, for him, home truly is where the heart is.
While there is a lot of emotion necessarily tied up in this sort of story, the film rarely sinks in to pure sentimentality, instead allowing the audience to make its own way through the emotional difficulties, the grief and the happiness, felt by the main characters. That this movie is based closely on a true story makes this emotion that much more genuine.
While I do feel that Brierley’s memoir is the superior work, Lion is a movie well worth your time. Perhaps save reading the book for after the film.
Steve’s Rating: (7.5 / 10)
A good adaptation of an amazing true story, with sweeping cinematography and a strong cast.
Director: Garth Davis
Writers: Saroo Brierley (adapted from the book A Long Way Home by); Luke Davies (screenplay)
Starring: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Priyanka Bose, Sunny Pawar
Release Date: January 6, 2017
Runtime: 1 hr. 58 mins.
MPAA Rating: PG-13