The Mane Attraction
What is going on with movies these days? I am quite as comfortable not having my emotions unnecessarily perturbed as any other man on the cusp of middle-age who is more-or-less resigned to his place on the Asperger's spectrum, but it seems like I can't sit down to watch a movie these days without feeling a sudden rush of, well, feeling, sometimes to the point where I actually start, you know, actually emoting in the theatre. Is it my age? Am I coming down with Bendii Syndrome? Or is it just something about the films themselves? It's a poser.
Hey ho. The latest culprit is also the first major 'based on a true story' film I've seen this year (not sure that Silence strictly counts, and virtually certain that xXx: Return of Xander Cage doesn't), Garth Davis's Lion. This is a film based around story elements with which I feel no particular connection – Indian social services, international adoption agencies, hotel management, Google Earth – but, as someone I was talking to just the other day suggested, that which is most personal is also most universal, which may explain how it managed to bypass my defences so neatly.
Things kick off in India's Khandwa region in 1986, where we encounter five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who is living in extreme poverty with his mother and siblings. Nevertheless he is happy, until one night when he and his elder brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) head off by rail to do a little casual labour. They are separated and Saroo ends up on the wrong train; two days later he arrives in Calcutta, 1500 miles away.
Saroo only speaks Hindi and the primary language in Calcutta is Bengali; also, no-one seems to recognise the name of his home. The child ends up living on the streets, only narrowly escaping all kinds of grim fates, and finally the authorities place him in a care home, which is really more like a rather brutal prison for children. And from here he is adopted by an affluent Tasmanian couple (played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
Twenty years pass and Saroo grows up into a strapping young hotel management student (he is now played by Dev Patel, who does indeed look appropriately leonine), embarked upon a relationship with fellow trainee Lucy (Rooney Mara). Then a meal at the home of a friend from India sparks all kinds of memories, and someone casually suggests Saroo could work out roughly where his train odyssey began and use the then-new Google Earth to identify the station and then backtrack from there to his actual home.
He dismisses the idea, but a seed has been planted, and it quickly turns into an obsession for him, as memories of his brother and mother resurface. Saroo becomes isolated from both his family and his partner as this seemingly-hopeless quest takes over his life. (And if you can't guess how it all ends, I'll be rather surprised.)
Got to say, I was rather dubious about this one when I first heard of it, because it just seemed like another attempt to channel that same sort of heartwarming subcontinental vibe as – apologies, but it's inevitable – Slumdog Millionaire, while at the same time doing its bit to boost the share price of Google. I feel obliged to mention that my experiences watching films where Dev Patel plays a hotel manager have also been not entirely satisfying, either.
And the first two things at least do have at least a little bit of validity to them, in that the film can't help but touch on some of the same topics as Danny Boyle's big hit, and the Google logo does prominently feature throughout the second half of the film. Nevertheless, both of these things seem to happen only because they're an intrinsic part of the story the film sets out to tell, rather than because of any other agenda on the part of the film-makers.
This is sort of a film of two halves, in that the first, quite-lengthy, non-Anglophonic section featuring Saroo's travails as a small child lost in Calcutta is a very different proposition to the rest of the film featuring him as an adult. The fact that the opening is focused on a five-year-old boy, often in significant peril, inevitably makes it feel just a little bit manipulative, plus I suppose the setting and the fact it's all in Hindi or Bengali also have a certain distancing effect. Speaking as a person of privilege from the First World, I found the story a bit easier to engage with once the setting and language became a little more familiar (and the film does address the issue of the gulf between these two worlds).
I suppose there's a slight problem here in that this latter part of the film is short on what you'd call actual incident – the scriptwriter has spoken of the problem of 'screens on screen', and the perceived problems involved in stories largely revolving around people looking at computer peripherals. They have a good crack at making Saroo's personal issues significant enough to influence the story – there's the strain on his relationship with Lucy, plus the fact that he has a brother, also adopted from India, whose personal problems are of a different magnitude than his.
But it all really works, mainly because the performances are so strong. Wenham and Mara possibly don't get quite the material they deserve, but Dev Patel gets a chance to do more than recycle his 'lovably plucky young chap' performance, and portray someone with some real angst and conflict going on. Nicole Kidman is also in more of a secondary role than you might expect, and her performance is very understated, but nevertheless highly effective – there's one scene in particular where she talks quietly about the choices she has made in her life, and her hopes for her sons, and it's one of those gut-punches of sheer human decency it's almost impossible to resist.
The same can be said for most of the conclusion of the film, which articulates most clearly its themes of finding home and a connection to your family. You know more or less how this will play out. You know what's going to happen. And yet, when it does, the sincerity of the film and the strength of the performances are enough to bypass your rational brain – if you're anything like me, anyway – and the result is, well, as profoundly emotional as anything I've seen on screen in a long while.
Lion is the kind of film which in a normal year might sneak a couple of minor Oscars, but this year – I'm not sure. I don't think it's quite a movie of the very first rank, but it's still skilfully made, with very impressive performances, and worth watching if you like a proper human interest drama. Other people may not take so kindly to having their emotions interfered with – but the fact remains that if you're not deeply moved by the last few scenes of this film, there's quite probably something organically wrong with you.