Lion is, without doubt, one the most emotionally powerful and moving movies of 2016. As a piece of art it is expertly directed, brilliantly cast, and beautifully scripted. This past weekend it walked away with two BAFTAs: Best Supporting Actor for Dev Patel and Best Adapted Screenplay. The film is nominated in both categories for the Oscars later this month as well as Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman), Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, and the big one – Best Picture.
Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography “A Long Way Home” which was published internationally in 2014. It chronicles Brierley’s remarkable true story who, at five years old, found himself lost almost 1,500 kilometers from his home in Khandwa, India. Saroo had accompanied his older brother, Guddu, to scavenge loose change on a passenger train before disembarking approximately 70 kilometers from home in Burhanpur. There Guddu left his younger brother asleep on a railway station bench with a promise that he would return to pick him up in a short while. When Saroo awoke delirious and using a child’s reasoning, he boarded a train at the same platform thinking that he would find his brother on board. It would be 25 years before he would see his family again.
Following a traditional three-act structure, the film chronicles Saroo’s separation from his family, his adoption by an Australian couple, his decision to search for his family as an adult, and finally his eventual return home.
In some ways Lion’s construction is comparable to 127 Hours (2010), in which Aron Ralston (played by James Franco) is forced to amputate his own arm after becoming trapped by a boulder in a slot canyon while adventuring in Utah. Though the story of Ralston’s harrowing escape and Brierley’s return home to India are drastically different when it comes to their actual narrative arch, from a storytelling perspective they face the same challenge: the audience knows exactly what the movie’s climax will be and what the plot is driving toward.
If you were one of the brave souls to choose to experience Franco’s de-limbing on a big screen, you knew that arm was coming off from the first frame. The movie teased it by having Franco slip here and there and by having Franco do a test-poke or two at his arm with his knife once already trapped. Macabre as it may seem, audiences bought tickets to see that arm cut off in the same way that I didn’t buy a ticket for that exact same reason.
Lion faces the same challenge. A well-informed audience with any knowledge of the true story will know Saroo uses Google Earth to find his way home. Like 127 Hours, audiences are captivated by the film’s climax and are eager to get there. The difficulty from a directing and screenwriting perspective comes in engaging an informed audience where manipulative tactics and big tear-jerking reveals won’t suffice if they aren’t backed by real substantive character development and plotting. In these capacities, Lion excels and are why it stands up to repeat viewings.
I’m also comparing Lion to 127 Hours because I think this similarity perfectly embodies why, at times, Lion felt like it dragged. As perfect as I thought it was, it felt bloated in the middle once we leave India (and the adorable Sunny Pawar as young Saroo). It’s not that the script isn’t well penned or that the acting isn’t compelling, it’s simply the audience’s eagerness to move on to their anticipated climax. Unlike 127 Hours, Lion’s narrative strength (and rewatchability) comes from the framing of these sequences with an emotionally compelling first and third act.
The only true flaw, in my opinion, is that the film glazes over Saroo’s adoptive brother’s struggles in favour of lending more screen time to Saroo and Lucy’s (Rooney Mara) romance. Though the catalyst for Saroo’s search, the romance was bland and unsatisfying – it felt more like a plot device than a genuine human relationship. In fairness, this probably stood out more in Lion than it would have in most movies since everything else surrounding it was so raw. With that said, a more in-depth look at Saroo’s relationship with Mantosh may have helped provide more intrigue during the movie’s midway lull.
The film brilliantly opens with a fly-over geography of it’s protagonist’s journey, allowing for the opening credits to unfold across the landscape in a way that calls back to classic Hollywood dramas. It is the perfect opening as it is only later that the viewer begins to associate these earlier landscapes with Saroo’s home. In the beginning of the film the viewer is as lost as Saroo will eventually become, confronted only with fleeting images that they are unable to place. The images are deliberately ambiguous – are we looking at India or Australia? It’s an amazing piece of subliminal storytelling as it evokes an unwitting sense of familiarity when those same landscapes are later retraced visually at the climax of the film. This is further emphasized by the absence of a title card, which is revealed to the viewer at the end of the film – at presumably the same time as Saroo becomes aware of it himself.
The sheer power of the film lies in this balance between subject and viewer. It’s the reason that Lion deserves every accolade it receives and why, in a perfect world, it would walk away with Best Picture on Oscar night. It is not a celebration of film like La La Land or a celebration of cultural diversity like Hidden Figures. It isn’t an ode to the broody white-guy or an examination of human bitterness and brokenness. It is an honest look at the human condition with its ups and downs. If you find yourself welling up, there’s an equal chance that it is from happiness as sadness.
Lion deserves to win because it doesn’t succumb to a moral dichotomy. It suggests, provokes, and produces genuine feeling rather than cinematic manipulation. As a result, it is the perfect cap to 2016.
It just isn’t the right year to crown a dreamy piece of escapism, a hopeful biopic, or a sullen examination of existential struggle. It is a perfect year to crown something deeply human, a film that engages the audience and makes the viewer feel something real that isn’t fleeting – and that’s exactly what Lion is.
Lion is based on the memoir “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley. The film was directed by Garth Davis and stars Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, and Nicole Kidman. The film introduces newcomer Sunny Pawar. Further credits can be found on IMDB site.
For information about showtimes and charitable causes, see Lion’s official website.