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You recall an old showbiz saying about never working with children or animals, because chances are you’ll be upstaged? Well, although the film is called Lion, it’s an untrained child actor (and not the king of the jungle) who steals the show in this movie. The actor is Sunny Pawar, a charismatic boy who will capture hearts as five-year-old Saroo Brierly, accidentally separated from his family in rural India.
After living on the streets, he is eventually adopted by a kind, well-off Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) The setup to this real-life story takes up a good half of the film, which unfortunately leaves little time for the fast-forwarded character of the twenty something Saroo (played by likable Dev Patel) to be firmly established. Thus, Lion becomes a bifurcated film. The first half is Oscar worthy but then it becomes somewhat skimpy, script-wise, and turns into an ordinary good movie. The net result is by no means bad, but the film appears to have been made by two different sensibilities.
As long as the movie is about the young boy in India, it’s powerful and even harrowing. Garth Davis, a British television director making his feature film debut, has an authentic feeling for the pathos and squalor and poetry of India. And Pawar is such a willful and talented little actor that you feel everything he is feeling as he struggles to survive. It’s when Saroo grows up and starts searching for his roots that the movie becomes conventional.
Patel is a fine actor, but you don’t see in his older Saroo the spark that animated the earlier, five-year-old. Rooney Mara’s talents are wasted in an underwritten (and unnecessary) girlfriend role but Lion does showcase a moving performance by Kidman, who with little screen time, shows us a woman falling in love, instantly and forever, with the lost boy from afar. This is certainly one of her best performances.
Is it possible to give an Oscar nomination to half a movie? I guess not but Lion’s first half, which focuses on the young Saroo, is exceptionally well photographed, well acted and suspenseful. This tale of resilience and determination is easily recommended.