A Decade at the Oscars: Lion
46) Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)
47) The Irishman (Martin Scorsese, 2019)
48) Lion (Garth Davis, 2016)
49) Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Vallée, 2013)
50) True Grit (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2010)[i]
Lion falls in an interesting area of my ranking of Best Picture nominees from the last decade. It is perhaps the section of the list where I feel there is the biggest gap in quality, and consequently the space where a number of films might fall. Though Arrival was ambitious and creative, I hated the magic time-travelling ending which was absolutely not what I was looking for after the imaginative set-up. Nevertheless, the majority of the film deserves great plaudits, and is one of the films whose ranking in this list is perhaps a bit harsh. The Irishman was great in its own way, with outstanding performances and mind-bending de-aging technology, but I really felt the film’s length while I was watching it, and I would certainly never like to sit through it again. Those two films are epic and ambitious, though, whereas Dallas Buyers Club is a steady but unspectacular take on the AIDS crisis, and True Grit is an uninspired remake of a great Western. This, as I say, leaves plenty of room for movies to bridge these gaps in quality, and that is where Lion comes in…
Garth Davis’s movie is all about its ending, a magnificent reunion that would bring even the most stone-hearted spectator to tears and which ties what has come before it together in spectacular fashion. Unfortunately, the journey cannot quite live up to the destination. This is very much a movie of two halves, the first of which sees young Saroo (played quite superbly by child actor Sunny Pawar) lose track of his family as he accidentally boards a train which carries him half way across India, Saroo too young and uneducated to properly communicate with speakers of other Indian regional languages, and unable to convey where it is he came from. This leads to a story which spans decades and continents, as he is adopted by a kind Australian family (played by the ever reliable Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and brought up in their care. Cut to the future, where Saroo has grown into Dev Patel, the top billed star of the film, who does not appear until over halfway through its runtime. The older Saroo realises that he still has a yearning to find his original family, and sets off on an obsessive quest to do just that, culminating in the aforementioned reunion. It is great material for a movie, and a true story to boot, but Davis can’t quite pull it together in a way that is constantly gripping and consistently entertaining.
Perhaps the film’s worst fault is an uninteresting love story subplot between Patel’s Saroo and Rooney Mara’s Lucy, which feels shoehorned in to make the film feel more Hollywood friendly. Though Lucy starts off as a seemingly rounded, stimulating female character, she quickly falls away to the edges of the movie, and eventually becomes an irritant who holds back the inevitable quest that drives the film, putting the dampeners on some of the film’s most exciting scenes like a buzzkill. She could easily have been cut from the film entirely without us losing anything and the relationship which the film clumsily attempts to put at its core ends up feeling forced and inauthentic. Furthermore, this subplot is one of the causes of Lion’s awkward tonal changes, as it lurches from poverty-riddled gritty drama, to sickly love story, to a determined quest for self-identity. The film doesn’t quite seem to know what it wants to be, trying to be the best of a number of worlds simultaneously, and being all the worse for its indecision.
In the end, perhaps, this film is just another missed opportunity. With such an emotionally-charged premise, you feel like Lion had the opportunity to be a great movie, but it ends up being just another ambitious but fault-ridden affair at the low-end of my 4-star rankings. Everything about it is just a little more predictable than you’d like it to be – Dev Patel playing to type in a rags-to-riches story, just as we have seen him do in just about every film he’s ever been in (he even studies for a degree in hotel management in Lion, a brilliantly meta nugget lifted from the true story). Davis’s movie is appropriately and deservedly emotionally manipulative, and you may well come away from it feeling elated because of the glorious final shots, but don’t be fooled, Lion has scant else to offer other than a build up to this finale, and is that really enough to sustain a film which could have promised so much more?
At time of writing, Lion is unavailable on any of the major streaming platforms, but you can rent it from Amazon Prime, or add it to your DVD collection!
[i] See the full ranking from the start of this process here: https://www.finalshotfilmblog.com/post/a-decade-at-the-oscars