Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Lion


Some stories are just meant to be adapted into films. When you have a real life occurrence so profound and so deeply moving, a film adaptation is just as pleasing as it is necessary. Naturally, each film adaptation of a true story is tasked with its own challenges. The biggest one that Garth Davis faces with his debut feature Lion is quite a big one. He doesn't know how to tell this story, and boy is it a doozy.

Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a young boy in India, accompanies his brother to work on the railway. He is separated from his brother and seeks shelter in a train. When he wakes up, the train is journeying away and no one else is on board. By the time it stops he's in an entirely different part of India, and can't communicate with the locals due to his Hindi language clashing with their Bengali. Isolated from his family, he is eventually taken in by a child welfare company and soon re-homed to a loving family in Australia. His mother (Nicole Kidman) and father (David Wenham) care for him deeply. Twenty years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is reminded of his past and plans to search for his biological family even though he can't remember the town he grew up in, causing friction with his adoptive family and girlfriend (Rooney Mara).

It's a phenomenal story. It's powerful, it's moving, it's quite frankly jaw-dropping. But Lion doesn't have the first clue how to deal with it all. Admirably, it refuses to resort to a flashback-heavy structure. We begin in the past with the young Saroo - and Pawar's performance here is exceptional, one of the strongest child performances in recent memory - and stick with him until after he's adopted. Then, and only then, do we cut forward to the present day to see where this journey has taken him.

This works well to relieve Davis' film of the melodrama and tackiness that could easily have overwhelmed it. However, for every issue it fixes it seems to bring up another two. It makes for a painfully slow beginning to the film - it's nicely shot and Pawar remains an engaging presence, but there's no momentum or direction. The film wanders around for fifty minutes, perhaps carried away by just how good Pawar is, clinging on to him for dear life. We're nearly at the hour mark by the time the film makes the switch to Patel's version of the character.

And the big issue here is that Patel's version of Saroo is disappointingly lacking in anything of interest. It's not Patel's fault at all - his performance is perfectly fine, even if his Oscar nomination is now somewhat puzzling to me - but rather the script's. It just isn't interested in really connecting any of its key people. Saroo's relationship with his girlfriend is so thinly sketched that I fail to see what she adds to the story besides screen time, and his bond with his father is practically non-existent. Saroo's connection with his adoptive mother is handled solidly, and Kidman makes the most of her emotionally charged scenes, but even then they fail to properly register after the credits roll.

There are also a lot of directorial touches to the film that don't resonate particularly well. Lion's cinematography is pleasant enough, but hardly intricate. The film has India and Australia in its hands but can't find a way to make them look interesting, let alone as beautiful as these countries really are. Saroo's isolation is felt through the framing early on, but there's little effort after that to show how he feels about his Australian life. The film spends so long with the young Saroo that the adult Saroo has no time to flourish, and the cinematography, which could have helped to rectify this, fails to add any new depth. Davis also frequently puts characters from young Saroo's life into the present day, as a sort of memory vision kind of thing, and it really doesn't work. These scenes are melodramatic at best and horrendously executed at worst - they never add to Saroo's emotional complexity nor feel natural within the frame.

It's tough to pinpoint what exactly causes Lion's emotional distance. Its pacing is offbeat for most of the journey - it begins as a story of heartbreaking isolation and then ultimately settles on becoming Google Earth: The Movie - but it feels like a deeper issue, an issue of understanding rather than execution. The film's script, penned by Luke Davies and adapted from Saroo's own book about the experience, is content with keeping everything at surface level. So, yeah, we get that Saroo likes his Australia life and is grateful for his foster parents and that he still wants to at least find his real home, but how does he really feel about all of this? It's almost impossible to answer. Lion is far too content to wallow around in misery for far too long, and nothing here gives us any real indication of how anyone involved in this unbelievable story really feels about any of it.

The film's ending is undeniably moving, but you'd have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by it regardless of what came before. Yes, it tugs at the heartstrings, but that isn't the film's doing. That's the true story behind it. For a film about human connection Lion has seemingly no understanding of how to actually form these connections, resulting in another case of a powerful true story suffering a poor adaption.

To Summarise: Despite the best efforts of its talented cast, Lion fails to make a lasting impression due to its inability to craft a thoughtful insight to the power of family and human connection.

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