Lion begins by telling us which part of India protagonist Saroo is from. Right from the outset, we know more than Saroo, and that is at the heart of why Lion is such an underwhelming film. Lion, at every turn, robs us of any opportunity to empathise with its main character. Instead of using every trick in the emotional book like a conventional “unforgettable true story”, Lion lays its cards on the table at the start, but still expects us to engage with its protagonist’s search for the truth.
Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a young boy living in a remote province of India. One day he is separated from his brother at a railway station, and climbs aboard a train to find him. He eventually falls asleep, and when he wakes he is thousands of miles away in the urban sprawl of Kolkata. Pawar is instantly loveable, a wide-eyed, impish child who boasts that he can lift anything. Lion’s first half, in which Saroo must survive on the mean streets of Kolkata, is made terrifyingly real by Pawar’s impressively naturalistic performance and considerable charisma.
In fact, Pawar is the only thing that instills Lion’s early scenes with any kind of emotion. It is obvious that first-time director Garth Davis cut his teeth in advertising, because these scenes play out like an advert by India’s tourism board, if India decided to offer package holidays to the slums of Kolkata. Lion’s first act seems comprised mostly of montages separated by brief scenes of dialogue. Nothing is lingered upon; we are never given a chance to feel the fear and confusion Saroo must have felt. Everyone in Kolkata speaks Bengali, but Saroo only speaks Hindi. And yet the Bengali is subtitled, which again prevents us from getting any real sense of what Saroo is going through.
Eventually Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple, played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman (who sports the same hairstyle I remember my mother having in the 80s). Cut to twenty years later, and Saroo is now Dev Patel. He starts a relationship with Rooney Mara, who is a fine actress but has nothing to do here. He also begins to have flashbacks to his previous life and decides to start searching for his original family.
Someone tips off Saroo to a new program called Google Earth (this was when publicly available satellite images were in their infancy). Much of the film is then taken up with Saroo defining a search radius around Kolkata and frantically looking for any sign of his former home. The problem is that a man sat at his computer combing through satellite images does not make compelling viewing. Davis tries his best, occasionally planting the adult Saroo on the streets of Kolkata as he imagines himself walking the city. But Saroo’s quest, as presented to us, is never more than superficial. Davis appears to be a competent visualist, but he seems unable to infuse this story with anything but cursory emotion. What is more, when Saroo finally discovers his home photographed by Google, it is through a desperately random clickfest on his laptop. It renders the proceeding search meaningless.
Saroo’s story is an extraordinary one, and it deserves an extraordinary film. A different director, perhaps, would have been able to do it justice, but not Davis. Lion is a disappointingly lightweight film. It is indifferent to its supporting characters, and seems reluctant to delve deeper into its subject matter. At times, it feels like nothing more than a feature length advert for Google Earth.