Garth Davis’ Lion details the dark pilgrimage of a young man. He’s displaced and irredeemable from any lost and found, haunted by a past that, with every passing year, has left him knowing less than before. It’s a tale of two films, one involving the riveting passages of Saroo (played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) in India’s West Bengal state. He lives in abject poverty yet possesses a rambunctious energy in the presence of his mother and older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). Guddu and Saroo are first observed scouring moving trains for coal, stealing as much as they can carry, and bartering for pouches of milk. Yet the two are separated, with Saroo waking up on a moving train, isolated in a locked cart as it roars through Calcutta. Sleeping in train stations along with other forgotten children, Davis palpably conveys the anxieties of being lost through traditional modes of storytelling and a persuasive craft that immerses his audience in Saroo’s headspace. We see young Saroo’s narrative come to a close as he enters a Dickensian orphanage, where his search for his mother and brother fails to yield a response. Saroo is left to accept an adoption proposal by a family residing in Australia, with the promise of a more auspicious future sold to him.
This opening passage lasts for roughly half of Lion’s two-hour runtime, as the picture transitions twenty years later to Saroo’s adulthood (played by Dev Patel). He has a healthy relationship with his adopted parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and a strained one with is adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa). He’s considered a success as he proceeds to college in hopes of working in the hospitality industry, where he meets Lucy (Rooney Mara) and quickly courts her. His past however, as periphery as it may have been during his adolescence, emerges as an existentially debilitating subject, as he confides to Lucy and their friends of his past, or rather absence of it. He’s a man without an origin, feeling as if a fraud living with an adopted identity. This prompts Saroo to abandon his responsibilities, instead obsessing over his past where he attempts to piece together what happened on the night where he and his brother were separated.
The latter half of Lion is comparatively fragmented to the straightforward nature of the first half. It does not possess the intriguing visceral quality that made the film so kinetic and captivating; it becomes an exercise in retracing one’s steps, uncovering a mystery that the audience has all the answers to. Two major factors contribute to such a steep decline in quality in Lion. The first comes in the way the picture is sutured, its editing failing to ingratiate the first half with the second in a persuasive and seamless way. While the first half is intact, the second is shapeless and messy. One could argue that this is the intended effect, but the experiment distills much of the emotional gravitas that the picture aims for in its conclusion. Rather than redemptive, the conclusion slogs to its inevitable end, with Davis having exhausted much of his formal arsenal.
The second issue comes from the inherent charisma of Sunny Pawar; his energy is of such a natural and magnetic quality. Yet Dev Patel’s performance is far more calibrated, pitched to a theatrical tone, that it gives Lion a synthetic touch. It’s not that he’s unconvincing but rather that Patel provokes a tangible distance between the naturalism of the opening half with a much more showy presence in the second half.
If anything, I’m casually reminded of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, which takes the time and delicacy to study a young boy’s ascent into adulthood in three feature length films. Davis omits the middle portion and condenses the bookend narratives into one feature and admittedly does an admirable job of emphasizing the ephemeral. But Lion, for the scope of its narrative and breadth of its ambitions, is not something that could be adequately told in 120 minutes. I’m convinced that Davis is capable of composing a rich and dynamic feature film; just not two condensed into one.