The best thing about Lion was Dev Patel’s hair. I thought his acting in Slumdog Millionaire was worth the hype, and he did a decent job in the okay-but-not-great The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But he was never physically striking – at least he never struck me as such. I dunno, he seemed to have this perpetually awestruck look that’s not very appealing:
That is, until Lion, when the mane made the man. It wasn’t quite enough to get him the Oscar, but hey, he got my attention.
Despite being the film’s protagonist, he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor rather than simply Best Actor. I think there’s an Academy rule about the percentage of screen time you need to have to be in the running for the main award.
So there are three things about Lion that surprised me: (1) Dev Patel’s hair, which we have already discussed; (2) the length of the film’s introduction; and, (3) how good that child actor was.
The story goes like this: an Indian boy is adopted by a Tasmanian couple then as an adult goes on a mission to find his birth family. Nothing remarkable there, except no-one knows where his hometown is. Also, it’s based on the real life of Saroo Brierly.
At this point, I should issue a SPOILER ALERT about what I write next. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film.
Actually, stop reading anyway, because I frontloaded my main point and this post is only going downhill from here.
If you’re staying with me, I can tell you the film’s introduction is slow but interesting. It showcases India by cataloguing Saroo’s early life in a village with his mother who works as a labourer, his sister, and the older brother he follows everywhere. But the five-year-old gets lost and ends up on the other side of India (much like me getting lost attempting to locate the outdoor cinema venue and ending up on the other side of Centennial Park – I had to catch an Uber to get there on time).
In bustling Kolkata, we’re shown the very real dangers that children are vulnerable to, such as trafficking. The streets are mean and you can’t trust anyone. Luckily, little Saroo has his wits about him despite not speaking a word of Bengali. He also has a healthy dose of good luck.
Because he’s so gorgeous, the traffickers want him. Because he’s so gorgeous, more benevolent strangers try to help and he ends up in an orphanage. Because he’s so gorgeous, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham decide to adopt him.
And because he’s so gorgeous, I can forgive the filmmakers for taking a good 45 minutes to tell Saroo’s back story.
Like Dev Patel’s character’s younger self in Slumdog Millionaire, the young Saroo is played by a kid they found in an Indian slum. Sunny Pawar is super cute – just check him out in his red carpet suit:
Unlike Dev Patel in the above mentioned movies, little Sunny does more than look bewildered in Lion. This kid is good at being a kid. He’s cheeky, obstinate, shy and afraid by turns. And sometimes he simply misses his mum.
So it’s a shame that the bit that comes after is patchy. Not to fault our friend Dev, who does an impressive Australian accent and goes easy on the wide-eyed wonder. (If you want to know, I watched the trailer and my initial interest in Lion was to curiosity about whether Dev Patel’s Strayan would hold up). Nicole Kidman also does a great job as his mum, who may have been the most well-painted of all of the film’s characters.
The story had some significant potential here. There are several identity issues that arise from the fact that Saroo is adopted, not to mention that he is Indian on the outside but Australian on the outside. Plus his biological family didn’t give him away and have no idea what happened to him – in fact, he still holds cherished memories of them.
There’s also a rich substory about Saroo’s troubled brother that could have been explored in a more cohesive way.
The end comes together well – it’s short but effective, and manages to avoid melodrama and cliche.
All in all the movie was good. But sadly, it wasn’t quite good enough to be great.
So if you haven’t already, forgive my spoilers and go ahead and see Lion for Dev Patel’s hair and accent. And also for little Sunny. Or you could wait for the DVD.