Lion is about as good as its poster tells you it will be. Which is mostly very. I guess given the success of Room last year this is going to be the visual language for heartfelt drama for a while. Which I guess is okay, but then Collateral Beauty had a similar design so it’s all a crapshoot really. At any rate, at least Lion isn’t lying to us, it really is very good.
Based on the autobiography A Long Way Home, Lion tells the story of Saroo Brierley, played here by Dev Patel. Born Indian and adopted by Australian parents he searches for his home town, the family of his birth. The real interesting thing here is the structure, the script by poet, novelist, critic Luke Davies forgoes the traditional way of telling these stories. Like the normal way to go about this type of thing would be to follow the character on his journey and, as he learns more about himself, we see it too.
That’s something we have all seen before, right? It only takes a moment of introspection though to understand the imperialism of that structure. It suggests that the culture of the adult, in this case that of this distinct Australian-ness, is the correct one. The investigation then, of the past becomes a form of cultural tourism in which the adult character can find personal meaning in a culture that is specified even down at the script level as alien, as other.
Lion chooses to tell its story chronologically, probably somewhere between a third and a half of the running time is spent charting the story of Saroo’s childhood disappearance, the events that lead him to his adopted family. The young actors who we spend much of this time with, Sunny Pawar as young Saroo, whose open face fills the screen and is captivating; and Abhisek Bharate, who presents this awesome range in playing Saroo’s older brother, are totally amazing. I believe they’re both newcomers too so all love to the Indian casting directors for finding these two.
The merit of this structure is that it allows the film to engage in a discussion on the nature of the international adoption that the film revolves around. Nicole Kidman turns up, her hair in some awful eighties ginger perm and we’re suddenly in Australia. They take custody of this child, whose language they do not share, whose whole experience they do not fully understand. A year later they take in another.
As much as the rest of the tale revolves around Suroo’s Google Maps driven investigation into his background and his slightly superfluous relationship with Roony Mara’s Lucy. Who seems like she’s just there because compulsory heterosexuality innit? The focus is on this adopted family, grown and how their shared and unshared pasts inform their grown lives. To what extent, it asks, was this upbringing an act of cultural vandalism inflicted upon these children? And is it possible to escape the ramifications?
Garth Davis’ direction undermines this reading somewhat, his vision of India is one that is distinctly foreign. As a child lost in a city, the signifiers of strangeness and unfamiliarity are not those of metropolis, but those of Indian culture. Equally his representation of Suroo’s village childhood, a little too romanticised.
It’s good though, it’s good. It’s just hard to articulate when so much of what makes it special flow from the foundational choices that the movie evolves from. Everything else is at least competent enough not to fuck the whole affair up. Which doesn’t sound like glowing praise, but really, it coulda been so easy.