tv + film by Philbert Dy

‘Lion’ Loses All Its Steam in Its Second Half

The film doesn’t quite have a handle on how to tell this true story.

NBHD movie 3 ticketsLion starts out in India in 1986, following five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pewar) and his older brother Guddu as they steal coal from freight trains. They trade the coal for food, which they bring back home to their mother and younger sister. One night, Saroo insists on coming with Guddu on another job, but Saroo is far too tired by the time they get to the train station. Guddu leaves his younger brother to sleep to station, promising to come back and get him. But Saroo wakes up with Guddu not there, and he steps on to a train trying to find him. He falls asleep on the train and wakes up to find that it’s moving. The train finally stops at Calcutta, hundreds of miles away from his home and his family.Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.31.55 AMScreen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.31.40 AMIt is halfway through the film’s runtime before we meet Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), the Australian couple that adopts Saroo. We jump ahead twenty years, where Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is about to enter a hotel management program. At a party with some newly made Indian friends, some food triggers a memory that brings him back to the tragedies of his childhood. Saroo then begins a quest to find his hometown and his family, with nothing to go on but the vague memories of his youth.Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.31.25 AMScreen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.31.09 AMThat search, as it turns out, isn’t very interesting. Perhaps it could have been, if the movie had just given it more focus. The drama of the second half is founded on the strain put on relationships we don’t really see develop. Saroo is becoming distant with the people who raised him. He is retreating from the world, spending more and more time poring over maps, hoping to find any clue at all that will lead him back home. And for the most part, there isn’t really anything happening. The characters aren’t talking about their issues, and Saroo isn’t getting any closer to finding his home.Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.33.35 AMScreen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.34.58 AMThis is all based on a true story, which gives the film some leeway for not following the rhythms of conventional cinema. But that doesn’t fully acquit it of it faults. More could have been done to flesh out these relationships so that the big dramatic confrontations would mean more. More could have been done to make the search seem more compelling, and maybe alleviate the sense that this is all just one big ad for Google. They might have applied the same cinematic qualities that they already used in the first half, which is much more successful is depicting the closeness of its characters.Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.35.19 AMAnd that’s the thing, really. The film is so good at setting up the elements in its first act that it’s deeply disappointing when it all falls away in the back half. It just doesn’t seem to have a handle on how to tell this story, and ends up handicapping itself as it seems to cede its more compelling portions for the sake of having heavyweight actors strut their stuff. And to be fair, it almost works out. Dev Patel is excellent in this, even though the character is stuck too long wallowing in nothing. Nicole Kidman is great as well. Rooney Mara has nothing to do in her role, but she sticks it out well. None of them are as compelling, though, as young Sunny Pewar, who conveys everything you need to know in his half of the picture.Screen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.33.56 AMScreen Shot 2017-04-06 at 10.30.35 AMLion is an okay movie as a whole. Taking both parts into account, there’s plenty in here that’s worth seeing. But the film struggles to find the right balance in conveying the two sides of this narrative. It ends up putting everything into Saroo’s struggle with his search, and it doesn’t really work out cinematically. We are stuck too long watching characters not talking to each other, unable to progress the story or their relationships to any satisfying degree. And when the solution comes, it arrives as a hilarious anticlimax.

Philbert Dy
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.
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