Blu-ray Review: Lion (2016)

By , Contributor
Last year's Oscar-bait biopic Lion fails to fully engage from start to finish, but not because of a weakness in its source material. Saroo Brierley's memoir A Long Way Home presents an ordeal few can even begin to imagine. Born into extreme poverty in Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh (India), Saroo became separated from his family at age five after boarding an empty train in search of his older brother Guddu. Locked into the rail car, all alone, he wound up nearly 1,000 miles from home in Calcutta. Hindi-speaking Saroo was unable to effectively communicate with the Bengali-speaking population, so he wandered the streets attempting to avoid danger.

This harrowing childhood experience is effectively depicted by director Garth Davis (making his feature film debut). Sunny Pawar, in the film's best performance, plays the bewildered but intuitive young Saroo with indelible grace. As the child wanders from slum to slum, he evades would-be abductors and is eventually placed in a horrific orphanage. The problem is, Lion peaks with this first act. Once Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley, Luke Davies' screenplay runs out of steam. Passing reference is made here and there to Saroo's assimilation into Aussie culture (he now roots against the Indian cricket team). But instead of plumbing his psyche, the filmmakers turn Saroo into something of a cipher. Dev Patel attempts to define the young adult struggling with his identity, but Davies forgot to craft a character for him to play. 
LION 1.jpg Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) bring another child into their family, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav as a boy, Divian Ladwa as an adult). But Mantosh isn't just underwritten, he's treated with downright indifference. The troubled, self-abusing Mantosh is not given a discernible arc. The movie just utilizes him to emphasize how inherently "good" the Brierley's angelic Saroo is versus what they seem to regard as the mistake of their second adoption. In fact, in the film's sappiest moment Sue tells Saroo of her dream of meeting a "brown child" that inspired her to adopt, as if it was fate. In this "white savoir" story, Sue and John were only able to "save" Saroo, while apparently chalking up their failure with Mantosh as a noble effort.

Removed from the real-life Saroo Brierley's (and ghostwriter Larry Buttrose's) prose, Lion grows tiresome and predictable as we watch Saroo performing decidedly un-cinematic Google Earth searches. He has resolved to locate his home town (as a child he mispronounced his neighborhood's name, preventing anyone from determining the exact location). The means by which he (spoiler alert) succeeds is laughable—when tons of push pin-marked maps on the wall fail him, Saroo (again, spoiler alert) simply flails around on Google Earth randomly until he apparently intuits the exact route to, and location of, his birth home. "Mum," he mutters, awestruck at his ability to turn his laptop into a kind of Ouija board. 
rsz_lion_2.jpg Lion struck a chord with Oscar voters as it was nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress for Kidman, Best Supporting Actor for Patel; the only deserving actor nod would've been for Sunny Pawar). That's probably because on a very superficial level it seems to hit all the right chords. But take a closer look at these characters and it's easy to see how thinly they are written.

For special features, Lionsgate's Blu-ray presents a short selection of deleted scenes and a five-part featurette series (that totals about 20 minutes). There's also a "lyric video" for Sia's closing-credits song "Never Give Up."


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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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