“Lion” is a severely bifurcated movie. For its first 45 minutes or so, it’s extraordinary, then for the duration, it turns into inspirational Oscar bait. The net result is by no means terrible, but the film appears to have been made by two different, almost warring sensibilities.
Directed by Garth Davis from a script by Luke Davies, the film is based on the true adventure of Saroo Brierley, who lives with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and mother in a remote, impoverished Indian village. When Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is separated from Guddu during a nighttime expedition and is trapped in a train taking him 1600 miles to Kolkata, he finds himself totally isolated. Speaking not Bengali but Hindi, he can’t even communicate with those who might help him, and he can’t locate his village or even remember his mother’s full name.
Adopted by a Tasmanian couple, well played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, who subsequently adopt a far more troubled Indian boy, Saroo, played as a young man in the film’s second half by Dev Patel, thrives on his parents’ loving kindness but can’t rid himself of the ache of not knowing what happened to his Indian mother and brother. Then he discovers Google Earth and eventually finds his way home.
As long as the movie is about the young boy in India, it’s powerful and harrowing. Davis, a British television director making his feature film debut, has a plangent feeling for the pathos and squalor and poetry of India. And Pawar is such a willful and industrious little actor that at all times, 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 I didn’t quite see in his Saroo the spark that animated the earlier, 5-year-old Saroo. It’s perhaps inevitable that “Lion,” in its non-India phase, would lack the immediacy of the earlier scenes, but the break is so clean that it made me wonder: Is it possible to give an Oscar to half of a movie? Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality.)