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Lion (2017)

Going in to a film feeling mentally unprepared makes it sound a much more arduous way of spending your time than it is. With all of the 'heavier' Oscar films on the horizon though, and with a preview screening of Mel Gibson's war epic, Hacksaw Ridge on the following evening, Charlotte and I were looking forward to disengaging our brains for a change. We had therefore gone to go and see M. Night Shyamalan's latest, Split. That isn't to say I'm expecting that to be an easy ride with it's multiple personality plotline, but certainly a lot less 'meaty' than those films released around this time of year. Unfortunately when we got to buying our tickets the screen was sold out (this has left us even more determined to catch it - particularly after the girl behind the counter then went on to tell us how good it was... no need to rub it in). Fortunately, another film released this weekend gone was starting in 10 minutes - and that is why we had to swap a fun popcorn thriller for the emotional rollercoster journey of one man's search for the family he was separated from as a child. Having seen the trailer I knew Lion wasn't going to be a comedy.

Based on actual events (as so many Oscar-bait films are), Garth Davis' Lion tells the story of Saroo Brierley. Born in a small village in India, Saroo helps his laborer mother and brother with work to make ends meet despite only being 5 years old. One evening he takes shelter from the cold of a strain station in a stationary carriage, falls asleep, and wakes up as the train hurtles 160,000km across India to Calcutta. Unable to speak the language, and unaware of the correct pronunciation of his home village, he's forced to live on the streets until he's lucky enough to be adopted by a couple in Australia. Twenty years later, and looking suspiciously like Dev Patel, Saroo struggles to balance his past and present during a search for a family in a haystack the size of India. Sometimes true stories are indeed more impressive than fiction, and this is certainly that. Aware of the incredible story it was about to tell, the awards hype, and having listened to an insightful interview with Patel on the film, my hopes for Lion were very high. Those expectations may not have done the end product any favours, but I couldn't help but walk away feeling a little let down.

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Lion is at it's best when it's in India. The cinematography was stunning, and I could have watched the opening credits of the country's vastness for much longer than is deemed normal. The first third of the film, as we follow you Saroo (played superbly by an adorable Sunny Pawar) is engrossing, and does very well at portraying the vividness of the country. It's that vibrancy of the city streets that then swallow this lonely child whole. Unfortunately the film stutters as soon as time passes 20 years and Dev Patel's story as a grown up Saroo, living with his adopted family progresses. After such a full on start, I thought that the pace of the film ground to a standstill. Too many things seemed to get in the way of the story moving on, not least the chemistry-less relationship with Rooney Mara. I thought it was all acted well enough, even if characters often had to spell out how they were feeling (I hadn't picked up on Saroo's inner conflict with his privileged upbringing until he said exactly that). Nicole Kidman was the best I had seen her in a long time (despite that perm) as she portrays a woman faced with the difficulty of having to adopt a person's history as well as the person itself. It sort of makes sense seeing as she is the A-list name on the posters, but it came across as odd when watching that her husband, played by David Wenham, is often sidelined for her.

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The truth is that if you're welling up at the trailer, or the plot summary above then you will most likely enjoy Lion. It's a remarkable story, and that will be enough to get many on board. The performances were all very good, and my biggest gripe was that the film seemed to trip up with it's pacing and structure whenever it tried to get going. Rooney Mara's character didn't seem necessary, and there's a lot of looking in to the distance at ghosts of distant relatives that all slowed the film further. Watching Patel scrawl endlessly through Google Earth for his hometown as if it were an episode of Catfish is particularly dull, and his eureka moment seemed far too fortuitous to me - but does all that matter when it reaches it emotional climax? It didn't seem to bother many of the blubbing Mum's at my screening. Considering the incredible and life-affirming source material I had high hopes going in to it, but it says everything about it that the most moving part was the actual footage of the real Saroo at the very end, and not the reenactments beforehand.


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