Lion is 2016’s Room—an emotionally devastating story that seems so unlikely you think there’s no possible way it’s true. Yet . . . it is. I’m still crying as I write these first few sentences of this review, because it’s just that much of an emotional train wreck. Well done, Weinstein Company. This is the best film they’ve produced in at least five years.
The story of Lion is simply incredible. Every moment of this film is gut wrenching, even the slower-paced moments. We spend pretty much the entire first half of the film with a young Saroo, played by newcomer Sunny Pawar. This segment could’ve sunk the entire film if it wasn’t as beautifully shot and acted as it was. Throughout the sequence Sunny Pawar has to convey emotions with just his face, and he does so marvelously. The audition for young Saroo must have been grueling, but they found their poster child with Sunny. After a brutal and emotional 45 minutes or so, young Saroo finally finds a home with John and Sue, played by David Wenham (of Lord of the Rings fame) and Nicole Kidman.
Kidman really isn’t in this film a whole lot, but hers just might be my favorite performance of 2016. The story is about Saroo, and as it progresses he spends more time with his girlfriend (played by Rooney Mara) than he does with Kidman’s character. But in every single scene Kidman was in, she just stole the show. She made me cry more than anyone else has all year, and she did it just with her facial expressions. I think director Garth Davis and company realized they had something great on their hands as the shooting for the film went on, because early on when you see Kidman it was often in wide shots that included David Wenham. As the film went on, though, those wide shots turned into close-ups of just Kidman. Toward the end of the film there’s a scene with Kidman and Dev Patel, (who plays Saroo as an adult) in which the camera is basically held on Kidman’s face, which conveys so much emotion through her eyes alone . . . it was absolutely devastating.
In addition, this film has a trove of Bollywood stars, most notably Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who is one of the A-listers of Bollywood. A lot of these actors I wasn’t familiar with, so it was very cool to see them in this film.
There were a few problems with Lion that keep it from receiving a perfect score. One was its pacing, particularly in the first half. There are a lot of things that happen to young Saroo, and while they are devastating and are meant to serve a real-life purpose, it does throw off the pacing. This is such a tough one for me, because there’s no doubt the opening sequences should be there, but it still doesn’t change the fact that the meat of this story is in the second half, and it takes too long to get there. Additionally, I wasn’t a huge fan of the score. It was nominated for an Oscar, so a lot of people must like it, but it bothered me. The main theme sounded exactly like “Light of the Seven” from Game of Thrones Season 6. Every time I heard the main theme all I could think of was Game of Thrones! I know this was totally accidental, and when the main theme wasn’t playing I certainly dug the unorthodox score, but come on! “Light of the Seven” is one of the coolest and eeriest uses of music in a TV/film sequence in recent memory. You cannot sound even close to that opening piano sequence with your main theme for a film. That, my friends, is a fail.
Still, Lion is an incredible work of cinema. It’s beautifully shot and beautifully edited and has great set design. It’s a fantastic smash-up of Bollywood and Hollywood and well-deserving of its six nominations.