At the tender age of five, Saroo, an Indian boy, becomes separated from his family on the streets of Calcutta. Adopted by a rich Australian couple, he is taken from destitute poverty to a life of ease and luxury. Twenty years later, armed only with dim memories and Google Earth, he sets off on a journey to rediscover his birth family. Another Best Picture nominee vying for an Oscar on the strength of its true story, Lion delivers its heartwarming narrative through careful application of music and cinematography while giving Oscar nominees Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman time to shine.
Unlike its competitor Hidden Figures, Lion displays real creativity in terms of its technical execution. The screenplay is remarkably non verbal and instead relies upon the film’s Oscar nominated score to carry the audience’s emotional investment through many scenes. Gentle piano melodies and sweeping orchestral pieces are complimented by more ethnic instruments which recall our lead character’s connection to distant India. The duality of the score musically reflects Saroo’s split identity – an Indian man raised in Australia.
The music is complimented by the film’s outstanding cinematography, also nominated for an Oscar. Top down landscape shots open the film and provide visual foreshadowing for Saroo’s use of Google Earth to find his way home. In addition, the way scenes are filmed often reflects Saroo’s emotional state, again allowing the film to engage the audience without dialogue. This is used to most notable effect in the first act when five year old Saroo (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) is first lost. His mounting sense of panic is conveyed by an unsteady camera and rapid cuts among multiple scenes set in the same location. The effect is abrasive and disorienting. Our sense of time is disrupted as we jump back and forth between multiple moments of fear and panic, all while Saroo is carried further and further away from home. As the film slides into ambiguity, our perspective is confined to that of a five year old – lost and afraid in an unfamiliar world.
The film shifts to a slightly more dialogue and performance driven narrative once Saroo is adopted by John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman). Of his two adoptive parents, the focus is clearly on his mother, the driving force behind the rich couple’s resolve to adopt orphaned children. Nominated for Best Supporting Actress, Kidman portrays Sue with quiet intensity. Though she has little screen time, she is gripping in the moment.
More noteworthy is Dev Patel and his portrayal of Saroo as an adult. Likewise nominated, Patel is for some reason relegated to the Supporting Actor category despite the fact that he plays the lead character for half the film. Perhaps because we open with Sunny Pawar playing Saroo Dev Patel gets bumped from the lead slot? In any case, Patel is the standout of the category. Trapped between two worlds, he adeptly portrays Saroo’s split identity, his drive to find his birth family, his sense of guilt for symbolically abandoning his beloved adoptive mother, his frustration with his search, and his eventual triumph and joy. The intensity with which he portrays Saroo’s emotional states can make the character feel somewhat mercurial, but this is more a symptom of the pacing than of the performance.
The film takes place over twenty five years. By necessity, events must be truncated and arcs get a little bit rushed.
Still, Lion remains an exemplary biographical drama. Technically creative, emotionally touching, and astonishing in its trueness, this is the feel good film of the Best Picture nominees.