Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 9, 2017)
Back in 2008, Dev Patel made his first cinematic splash via the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. Nearly a decade later, he takes the lead in another acclaimed drama, 2016’s Lion.
Part of an impoverished Indian family, five-year-old Saroo Munshi (Sunny Pawar) falls asleep on a train and finds himself far from home. He winds up in Calcutta, hundreds of miles from his family.
Due to his youth, Saroo finds himself unable to give enough personal information to send him back to his clan. As such, he winds up in an orphanage, and he eventually gets adopted by John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierly (Nicole Kidman), a couple who take Saroo to live with them in Australia.
25 years later, Saroo (Patel) finds himself curious about his past. Though eager to prevent emotional harm to his adopted family, Saroo decides to seek out his biological clan, and he uses a variety of methods as part of this improbable quest.
Every year, I attempt to see all of the Oscar Best Picture nominees. Of course, since the Academy expanded past their old limit of five picks back in 2009, this became more of a challenge, as I now need to watch up to 10 choices each year.
Of the nine 2016 nominees, Lion became the hardest sell for me. Not that I thought the movie looked terrible, but it simply didn’t do a lot to appeal to me, so it became the only 2016 Oscar Best Picture option I didn’t watch prior to the ceremony.
Now that I’ve seen Lion, I can’t claim I regret my choice to wait to view it on Blu-ray, but I did like the flick more than anticipated – especially during its well-realized first half. The 1980s segments use much more of the running time than I expected, as I figured that we’d spend a token amount of time with “young Saroo” before the meat of the story focused on the adult version.
That didn’t occur, as Lion split the narrative nearly down the middle. We don’t meet “adult Saroo” until 53 minutes into the movie, so we spend almost half of the flick with the childhood character.
This works surprisingly well because Lion paints young Saroo as a more interesting character than I anticipated, and Pawar deserves a lot of credit for that. I got the impression the little kid “actors” in Slumdog were cast due to cuteness and nothing else, but Pawar actually pulls off the role’s challenges well.
Pawar makes young Saroo more fleshed out than I figured would be the case, and he helps add emotional impact to the story. Heck, I can’t even accuse the filmmakers of “cuteifying” Saroo – we see pictures of the real child at the movie’s end, and he looked a whole lot like Pawar.
As we also see, Patel looks nothing like grown-up Saroo, but that doesn’t cause concerns. More problematic, however, is the way Lion becomes a bit of a chore to watch during its “adult Saroo” half, as the movie tends to lose its way.
The inherent problem stems from the nature of Saroo’s quest. This essentially becomes a story about a guy who searches the Internet, so Lion tries to find creative ways to complicate the narrative – an hour of “move cursor, click, move cursor, click” wouldn’t be very interesting.
Unfortunately, the end result isn’t that compelling either, mainly because little really happens. We get a lot of shots of Patel as he looks haunted and disheveled, but the film fails to explore adult Saroo or any of the others to a satisfying degree.
Which seems like a shame, for the 1980s half works so well. Not only does Lion explore the existence of young Saroo in a compelling way, but also it creates a powerful depiction of the abject poverty in which he and others lived.
During the end credits, a graphic tells us that 80,000 Indian children go missing each year, and Lion makes you feel the despair of that circumstance. When Saroo pleads for assistance, the utter indifference shown by adults seems shocking, and Lion doesn’t sugarcoat this. That side of the movie brings power to the experience.
I just wish the second half of Lion maintained the same level of drama. While we still get some effective moments along the way, this remains an inconsistent movie. It works well enough for a moderate recommendation but its largely unfocused second hour harms it.