Lion is the true story of Saroo Brierly (played as a 5 year-old by Sunny Pawar and as an adult by Dev Patel), an Indian boy who after being lost and ending up thousands of miles away from home was eventually adopted by an Australian family. This very well acted and written movie really is two different films, the first half a sort of thriller about a young boy desperately trying to survive and get home in a culture so overpopulated that people are practically disposable, and the second half about a young man trying to figure out his place in a world in which he feels he is betraying the people who love him when he becomes obsessed with his past and who also feels guilt over his luck in becoming a privileged person through no work on his own part when he knows he would have lived a life of complete and abject poverty were it not for a quirk of fate.
Both Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman (as Sue Brierly, Saroo’s Australian adoptive mother) have been nominated for Academy Awards as supporting actors in their respective roles, and while I don’t see either performance as necessarily worthy of winning, they are both definitely worthy of their nominations. These two roles are the largest in the film, and have to carry more of the themes and the story than any others, but are considered supporting purely due to the fact that the film takes place over such a large period of time with such a large cast that even these largest roles are around for only roughly half the running time. Still in that half we get to see both of these actors at or near their best. Patel particularly gives us a truly realistic and memorable character as he starts out a confident, cheerful man very pleased with his life but ultimately becoming more and more anxious gradually, losing that confidence and eroding his relationships as he becomes consumed with both his guilt over his luck and his desire to discover what happened to his birth family. Nicole Kidman doesn’t give perhaps her best performance here, her career is so long and celebrated that that would be quite a stretch to claim, but it does rank among her greatest at least. Her Sue is a character that brings out the empathy in us all with her long suffering cheerfulness and her desire to make the world a better place. There is one scene between Kidman and Patel in particular when Saroo reveals to Sue that he feels guilty for her having to raise him that I guarantee will get under the skin of even the most unsympathetic of us and will make you ponder the way you think of family and its purpose.
The cinematography in Lion was also nominated for an Academy Award, and this nomination is a little more sketchy. It is well done, there is no doubt about that, and a handful of scenes here and there show true inspiration, but for the most part the camera work in Lion is nothing more than consistently proficient. There is nothing at all wrong with that, and it makes for a strong viewing experience when the camera work never interferes with and often enhances the story, but to say it is one of the five best instances of cinematography this year is an overstatement when there are far more stylish and more difficult to film works that did not get nominations.
The writing in Lion is, however, worthy of its nomination. It not only gives a gripping, multi-layered, well-paced true story, but it also manages to say a lot about family, privilege, overpopulation, and a great many other topics in its 2 hour running time and all of it current, relevant, and very thoughtful. Young Saroo’s trials as an orphaned child in India show a culture which is so overstuffed with people that it’s all one can do to just survive day to day, and being noticed is not only not a concern, but can often be a detriment as the only reason someone would want to deal with a stranger is to use them to further their own survival by whatever means are necessary. The sharp contrast with the wealthy Australian family is night and day, and says a lot about not just first world privilege and how we take it for granted, but also about what altruism and love truly are, or at least what they can and should be.
Final recommendation: Lion is an excellently put together story. It has a wealth to say about the world we live in and how very different our cultures can be. It says just as much about love, family, our personal ties, and what it is that ultimately makes us human. However, as well done as it all is, it isn’t overly creative nor artistic. It’s a film you appreciate and respect more than be awed by. You will often get caught up in it, but will also just as often lose that connection when Lion moves on to a scene not so pivotal. If you are an Oscar junkie, or if great performances are your favorite part of a movie, then this gets a whole hearted recommendation. I give the same recommendation to those who are moved by stories about love and family. For the rest, I will say there is nothing here which will be particularly off putting nor intriguing. It is a wonderful story, and a good movie, but it is not a masterpiece and it is not one of a kind.