Biopics, and other films based on true stories, wield a double edged sword in production. They are always fascinating stories from terrific source material (or, they should be; the real world is full of spontaneous, exciting, and untold stories), however the need to honour real life can often detract from the art of the filmmaker and other artists involved in the production. Garth Davis’ 2016 Lion is a real life story with a most extraordinary source material, Sarloo Brierly’s A Long Way Home, but often gets caught in the trappings of being too faithful and careful with its source story.
Sarloo’s story is his own: as a five year old in a rural Indian village in 1986, he went missing, ended up on a train to Calcutta, and through a series of extraordinary coincidences, ended up moving in with a foster family in Tasmania, before 25 years later locating his mother and family back in India, despite not remembering the name of the small village where he lived. It is an extremely sensitive story, and Davis brings his unanimously magnificent cast of actors to extraordinary emotional heights, with an incredible score from Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran. The emotional highs and lows of Brierly’s story are an overwhelming, transcendental triumph from the filmmaker, and occur often enough to make the film a thoroughly worthwhile emotional experience, however the overall film is marred by the excess of plot that Davis obviously isn’t as comfortable dealing with as he is in the emotional exchanges.
The characters early on in the piece, with the exception of Sarloo (played in early scenes by the luminous Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu, are sketched incredibly thin, and though this may be an attempt to get us to identify with the situation as Sarloo might, it ends up alienating us from the story, and dampens our emotional reaction to the situation he faces. The story does not pick up from here until Sarloo moves to Australia. Davis’ strengths as a filmmaker are his consummate mastery of pure displays of emotion: his montages of Sarloo’s happy times with his new family, John and Susan Brierly (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman, terrific), the brief but completely believable courtship he has with Lucy (Rooney Mara) as a young man (now played by Dev Patel, in one of the years best performances), are both examples of a filmmaker totally free of the constraints of time and place, and able to express his voice and his own art.
As Sarloo begins to question his origins and goes on a lengthy google maps investigation of his family’s potential whereabouts, the plot thickens, as it were, and we are again relegated to the positions of spectators, and outsiders to Sarloo’s stories, rather than privy to his incredibly vivid psychological experience. We are let back in in rare instances, when he opens up to his birth mother Sue, in every single interaction he has with Lucy, and of course, in the film’s exceedingly emotional climax. These moments, and the story linking them together, are a portrait of one of the most incredible true life stories put on screen in recent years, yet the constraints of the true story nature remain within its constructs.
The film pays lip service to Mantosh, a more troubled child adopted by the Brierlys who cannot find his feet in his new home country as naturally as Sarloo, but his story feels continually neglected, underdeveloped, undernourished. Indeed, whilst it was a part of the real life Sarloo Brierly’s story to a profound extent, the nature of his existence within this film is of no interesting addition, and the story we see on screen would be equally, if not more powerful, if it were not for his addition. One wonders whether Davis was confused towards Mantosh’s place in his overall narrative, or whether he was not given adequate attention in Sarloo’s source material (which I haven’t read, because bloody millennials).
Lion is a visceral, moving experience, based on an incredible true life story, which suffers from the same constraints only the most profound and artful biopics are able to escape (Pablo Larrain’s recent Jackie comes to mind), however, when Davis’ film is not paying its dues to its original material, it has the markings of a unique, profound, and artful experience in the cinema.