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TIFF Review: Lion – “Inspiring, thought provoking viewing”

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Dev Patel in Lion

Lion is coming on strong at the Toronto International Film Festival.  After its premiere Saturday evening the response was so positive from the audience that they have since added two more public screenings during the festival.  This may be a ploy to help it win the People’s Choice award (which is often a film that gains Oscar attention – case in point: Slumdog Millionaire), but it also speaks to the strength of the film itself.

The incredible true story focuses on Saroo Khan.  In 1986 as a young boy (Sunny Pawar), he gets lost in his native India while traveling with his brother, Guddu.  Getting on board an abandoned train for shelter, he wakes up to find himself on the move and eventually 1600km away from his home.  He can’t speak the language where he’s landed and he doesn’t know his mother’s name – she’s tenderly just mom to him.  After living on the streets for months, he is finally taken to a horrific orphanage, and then adopted by a couple in Tasmania, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham).

Fast forward twenty years later, Saroo is in his twenties now and going off to Melbourne for school.  He meets Lucy (Rooney Mara) and life seems to be going well until a sudden memory triggers childhood recollections of life in India.  Feeling suddenly like he doesn’t belong, like he needs to find his way back, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) endeavours to find his roots using technology now readily available – Google maps.

The first half of Lion is gripping and heart wrenching.  Young Sunny Pawar is stunning to watch.  It doesn’t hurt that he is absolutely adorable, but he brings out immediate empathy and concern for him.  As he calls his brother’s name at the abandoned train station, you can hear a pin drop while everyone hold their breath. While he navigates the busy streets of Calcutta you can’t help but plead for him to stay safe.

The problem with Lion rests in its second half.  Dev Patel puts forth a heartfelt performance here, worthy of all the positive attention being thrown his way, but director Garth Davis said himself after the premiere that making Google maps interesting is difficult business, and he just hasn’t pulled it off.  While staying true to the real life Saroo’s methods, it unfortunately transitions in a way that is just cinematically flat and just plain boring at times.  In order to try and ramp up the drama Patel’s Saroo just becomes moody and detached.  While these emotions would be expected in the real life situation, the repetitiveness of the act starts to wear you down.

One of the truly bright spots of the entire film is Nicole Kidman’s performance.  She surely will get a push towards a supporting actress nomination for her beautiful portrayal of Saroo’s adoptive mother.  A scene where she explains to the older Saroo about why her and her husband adopted is a particularly poignant moment (and one of a few tear inducing moments in the film).

Once Saroo’s story starts moving again in that second half, the film recovers and its eventual outcome is difficult to resist.  Lion, whose title is endearingly explained in the last moments of the film, is an inspiring story that also asks a lot of big questions.  When Saroo boards that plane to Australia, you realize he’s leaving his family behind, yet you know the life he is going to will hold so many more opportunities for him.  Which is right?  What constitutes home?  It brings to light a lot of issues surrounding adoption and the number of lost children falling through the cracks in India alone.  If it starts a conversation, then Lion will have achieved its true purpose, but its also just good, inspiring, thought provoking viewing.

4-out-of-5

Check out all of our TIFF coverage.

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One Comment

  1. Absolutely superb film…riviting acting with the little guy Sunny Pawar
    and Dev Patel at his finest.
    I choked throughout the entire film.
    A shoe-in at Oscar time.

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