This is the unbelievable true story about an Indian orphan’s search for his family home using Google Earth. It is surprisingly not funded by Google and is thankfully not just two hours of scrolling and waiting for those big square blurs to resolve themselves into smaller pixels every time you move sideways or zoom in. I don’t mean to brag but I managed to find my family home on Google Earth in about ten seconds, although I suppose it helps if you have a postcode.
Confidently directed by Australian Garth Davis in his feature debut, Lion is a superbly solid film that hampers itself by telling the first acts of its story so well that the final act – the famous part with all that Google Earth scrolling – suffers in comparison. The Indian-set first half is just so vibrant, immersive and gripping that the film loses all its momentum when it jumps forward twenty years in time and supplants itself to Australia.
It pulls itself back together, but slowly. Dev Patel does a manful job of the Australian accent, and plays the adult protagonist well – well enough to win a Bafta for Best Supporting Actor in fact – but he’s still acted off the screen by his child counterpart, Sunny Pawar. Pawar, who plays the younger version of the character in the first half of the film, is such a charming, magnetic presence that you can’t help but miss him when he’s gone.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, Rooney Mara is stunningly beautiful and completely pointless except as a foil so that Dev Patel doesn’t have to narrate his breakdown to himself. His family end up feeling similarly redundant, with unnecessary subplots that presumably were kept in to stay faithful to the actual events. At times, the film is overly expository, with one wince-inducing monologue from Nicole Kidman and an awful lot of characters explaining their lives to each other. Yet at other times, it finds a commendable subtlety: a believable emotional vein that’s intense but not cloying, sweet but with a bitterness to balance.
It’s hard to fault a film for being melodramatic when it’s grounded in truth, and though the narrative takes some understandable artistic liberties, it never strays too far into fable. For every victory, there’s a clear sacrifice. For every reunion, there’s a loss. Its emotional payoff is cathartic and well-earned by all that has gone before. The music is luscious and evocative; the expansive cinematography reflects the loneliness of isolation and the beauty of being home. In its Indian scenes (and casting of Dev Patel) it is reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire at its best. Take tissues and expect to cry.
Finally, it’s worth noting that, when the film’s credits play and they show the actors side-by-side with their real-life counterparts, it’s incredible how alike most of them look. Except for Dev Patel. Dev Patel looks absolutely nothing like the man he’s playing. Why did they give him a beard, for goodness sake? This has nothing to do with the fact that my girlfriend has a crush on Dev Patel, but someone should definitely shave off his beard.