Directed by Garth Davis
Written by Luke Davies
Starring Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, David Wenham & Divian Ladwa
Film Review by Dean Pettipher
As alluringly clear as the most valuable of diamonds was the fact that American Express played the role of the 60th BFI London Film Festival’s (LFF 2016) principal sponsor made known to all with even the slightest capacity for inquisitive observation. Thus, along with the excitement that sweetened the air during one of the grander and more extravagant red carpet events of the LFF 2016 came an undeniable sense of anxiety. The understandable degree of anxiousness was rooted within the pressure placed upon a film because it had been specially chosen to represent arguably the most significant partnership behind the festival. Fortunately, the risk paid off, for even if Lion (2016) does not manage to seek out the top spot reserved in audience hearts for the best film of the year or indeed the finest production of the LFF 2016, the unquestionably affecting family drama will definitely find a home within those same hearts as a spectacular film that simply needed to be seen. Lion is a roaring delight, not least because of it is based on an astonishing true story that has been elegantly adapted for the silver screen, featuring many crucial reminders about how miracles can and do really happen.
The acting at the forefront of Lion, particularly from Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman, is arguably the most heartfelt witnessed in recent memory. Patel’s gentle, sincere and evidently deeply felt interpretation of Saroo Brierley is superb, in no small part due to his excellent employment of a believable Australian accent with a Tasmanian dialect. Additionally, Patel utilises carefully considered hand gestures, striking facial expressions and well-judged tonal shifts in his uniquely eloquent voice. Kidman once again shines as a major supporting character that requires a noteworthy change in appearance, most notably in relation to her hairstyle. Her new look maintains Kidman’s commanding beauty centred within her majestically azure-blue eyes. Her role in Lion proves to be as significant as her supporting role in The Railway Man (2013), albeit the love explored throughout the latter movie with Colin Firth is of the truly romantic sort, as opposed to the love between mother and child within the broader context of family that the former film examines principally via Kidman’s contribution.
Not far behind Patel and Kidman lies the role occupied by Divian Ladwa, which, while small in terms of screen-time, allows for mind-blowing moments of artistic prowess that take full emotional advantage of key turning points that consequently result in very suddenly heated scenes. Should Ladwa receive more prominent supporting roles or indeed some leading roles as a result of his work in Lion, he may quite likely be one to watch with great anticipation in the near future. One final critical note regarding the acting is the extraordinary contribution made by Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo Brierley. One would think that Pawar might have already mastered method acting through his passionate performance that suggests he is a very worthy recipient of the role. Incidentally, Pawar won the part following a casting process, which, according to the line producer, Pravesh Sahni, involved the auditioning four-thousand boys. Pawar works brilliantly with his co-actor and fellow newly-discovered child star, Abhishek Bharate, as they together keep audiences profoundly engrossed throughout the first act of the movie.
Lion marks the first feature film directed by Garth Davis, who is perhaps best known for his directing work on the television series entitled Top of the Lake (2013-present). Davis fantastically compares and contrasts the two countries visited in the movie, India and Australia. Both settings feel very much alive, as if audiences have been transported beyond the fourth wall and are present with Saroo on a journey of self-discovery, which, by the end, punches almost as hard as any Dickensian variation of the tale ever could. The authenticity provided by the filming on location in these two settings is complimented by the decision to employ a plot structure charting Saroo’s life chronologically rather than through moving back and forth with flashbacks for instance. Such a technique has been similarly used in the atrociously underrated drama entitled The Good Lie (2014). For both movies, the technique serves the story with a vital sense on controlled stability, through which the director and the team can easily speed up and slow down the pace of the story when necessary, while maintaining a firm focus on its central themes. Thus, heart of the tale is never lost to unnecessary complications that could cause audience confusion or boredom.
Patel has stated that the screenplay for Lion is the best one that he has ever read. Without intending to overhype Luke Davies’s script, which is adapted from Saroo Brierley’s memoir entitled “A Long Way Home” (2014), it is supremely superb. Davies’s final draft achieves a fine balance between an essential sensitivity towards the source material and the crucial fictitious variations required for a compelling cinematic story. What Davies does particularly well is employing succinct supers for dramatic effect. That is to say, Davies very carefully selects words and short descriptions, which are briefly superimposed on the screen for a few brief moments of audience attention, in order to make certain essential details abundantly clear. Such a device is not used here to dumb down the story but rather to gracefully emphasize key information, without which, the full significance of certain events would never be truly felt. As writer of novels and poetry, Davies shows once again, following on from his work for Life (2015), how he is a truly versatile writer who ought to be writing more screenplays, be they adapted or original.
The music of the film is mostly made up of beautiful and poignant piano melodies that could quite easily entertain the grandest of concert halls. The tunes are not as easy to remember and recall for life as the main themes from Star Wars (1977-present) for instance. However, once they are heard again for the first time in awhile, they soon reawaken whatever pleasant sensibilities were felt during the previous listen. The duo behind the original score, Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, illustrate how collaboration between two veteran composers can prove to be just as fruitful as when the composer works solo. The union of German and American talent frequently gives way when necessary to periods of silence or nightclub music, always returning with poise at arguably all of the most significant moments within the story. Finally, regarding the soundtrack, there is an awesome song performed by Sia and produced by Greg Kurstin, during which one just cannot leave his or her seat.
The greatest concern with the film Lion is that while the picture offers some impressively insightful investigations into the relationship between Saroo and his adoptive mother, Sue Brierley, the same level of emotional depth is not descended to regarding Saroo’s relationship with his adoptive father, his adopted brother, or his girlfriend. As result, audiences are left with just a faint sense that some questions have been left unanswered. Moreover, some major rifts in character connections feel as though they have been brushed over and left to be forgotten in their unhealed states. Thus, the significance of those characters within the context of Saroo’s journey seems like it has not been fully appreciated. On the other hand, not one character is two-dimensional and not one character looks as though he or she should not be there. Additionally, the most vital questions are answered by the time the credits roll, just before some lovely post-credit footage that reminds audiences of the true story behind the movie’s magic.
Not so long ago, the nominations for the 2017 Golden Globe Awards were announced. By now, One may have frequently sat in a silent state of complete and utter bemusement over the years in the wake of some of the often politically-motivated or otherwise recurrently incomprehensible decisions made by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association. The most recent illustration would be when The Martian (2015) won the 2016 Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical. Even the film’s director, the legendary Ridley Scott, dared to declare, “Comedy? But anyway I’m very grateful for that.” Scott’s science fiction masterwork was of course worthy of the most prestigious forms of recognition but not to the extent where powerful individuals were able to so blatantly pretend that the picture was something it so plainly was not. Another good example would be the year when Leonardo DiCaprio was nominated twice for the same Golden Globe Award entitled Best Actor – Drama. DiCaprio left the ceremony in 2007 without either of his fantastic performances in The Departed (2006) or Blood Diamond (2006) being crowned the winner. Since DiCaprio’s selection for two of the tragically few slots available for that particular award category did not go on to win, meaning that other actors lost out on recognition of their superb work that year for nothing, one could not help but wonder, “what on earth was point of that?”
For Lion, however, the Golden Globe nominations are accurate and well-deserved. Whether or not the movie wins the trophies for the best drama picture, the best leading actor for Dev Patel, the best supporting actress for Nicole Kidman, or the best original score, all of these elements have been rightly pointed out as pillars of excellence. Truthfully, the competition this year will be fierce and Lion may become lost amongst the other, more hard-hitting contenders like La La Land (2016), Manchester by the Sea (2016) and Hacksaw Ridge (2016) to name but a few. Nonetheless, Lion will live long at least faintly in memory as an incredible work of art and storytelling about the power of love in its universal familial guises. Lion will roar passionately within one’s heart not least because it is wonderfully adapted from an inspirational true story that needed to be shared. Furthermore, Lion will lie safe within one's soul because it joins the ranks of the admirably brave projects risking commercial success in order to champion diversity within the film industry for the sake of a good, well-told and above all authentic story.