Lion is such a well-intentioned snooze that I know it’s going to clean up at the box office. The true story of how an Indian boy gets separated from his family, is adopted by white Australians, and twenty years later is reunited has an intrinsic holiday appeal. But Garth Davis shows little talent for dramatizing the story other than to coast on the audience’s good will. Don’t fret: it should do marvels for stock in Google Earth, the tool with which Saroo Brierley finds “Mum.”
The first forty minutes are Lion‘s strongest. Young Saroo (the terrific Sunny Pawar, whose eyes can stop cars) and older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), residents of the village of Khandwa, are so poor they scrounge for coal to exchange for milk. At a railroad station Saroo mistakenly boards an out of service train; in the rush he and Guddu get separated. As the unfamiliar landscape whizzes by and Saroo’s calls for his mum and brother are met by at best curiosity from spectators, Lion’s purported theme — alienation from even the most familiar environs — gets realized. Davis’ approach is closer to Empire of the Sun than Pather Panchali; he prefers suspense to situating characters in alien contexts, such as when a group of other homeless children get abducted and Saroo has to run for his life across the foreign bridges and streets of Calcutta.
If Lion had concentrated on Saroo’s adventures in the streets, it might’ve been a harrowing little picture. But Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies remain tethered to the real Saroo’s memoir A Long Way Home, which means the adaptation trudges obligingly towards uplift and inspiration. After running away from a kind dabbawala who might have been a surrogate mother, he’s rounded up and put in an orphanage (running his picture in the papers has proven unsuccessful). Fortune’s wheel keeps spinning, however: an Australian couple John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) adopts him. They giggle around the dinner table as the little brown boy mispronounces “pepper,” in a scene directed as if it missed the chance for insertion into a scrapped India pavilion at Epcot. Saroo grows up to become Dev Patel, whose gorgeous beard and unruly hair are powerless against Kidman’s late eighties curls. Accompanying him is another adopted Indian boy, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa)
It’s at this point that Lion ossifies into a picture of joyless banality. The grown Saroo, who moves to Melbourne to complete a hotel management course, falls in love with colleague Lucy, played by Rooney Mara as if she just loved the flight to Australia. But a chunk of his life remains in India, and he must find what’s left of it. Of course, Lucy ministers to him (“You underestimate her,” she scolds him regarding the neglected Sue. “She needs you”) because that’s what women do. Patel, an agreeable performer, devolves into an emblem of suffering. Blame Davis, who must have a kind of mercury poisoning in his blood to make rhythms this slack. When he’s stuck for ideas he includes a montage. Then another montage. And another. The picture has no tension, no sense of felt life. When Saroo, theoretically in great sorrow, confronts Sue with the news that he’s traveling to Sue, you might be forgiven for thinking what the big deal is; there’s no warmth between the pair. Kidman’s natural chill as an actor doesn’t help; she’s more apt to leave Saroo in the city and run without a thought (I’d cast her in a remake of the dingo drama A Cry in the Dark). “I feel like you adopted our past, and now we’re killing you,” Saroo tells Sue, who can’t catch a break — first by adopting him, then by weeping quietly in bed for the duration of the picture.
You know what happens next; I don’t even have to quote the end sequence title cards. Other critics might accuse Lion of being all heart, but its catatonic sentimentality repels emotion. It’s got an eye on grosses, and with its multinational cast, including one of the actors from the orientalist nightmare The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, it will do well overseas. Friends, keep your kids close.