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Dev Patel as Saroo Brierley in Lion (2016). Long Way Home Productions

Lion is a well-made melodrama with a rather disturbing message

Lion is a well-made film starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. An Australian production written by Luke Davies (Candy) and adapted from Saroo Brierly’s memoir A Long Way Home (2013), it follows the remarkable true story of an Indian boy who, lost in Calcutta, is adopted by an Australian couple and grows up in Tasmania. 25 years later, he uses Google Earth to locate his home village and is reunited with his birth mother.

The film is split evenly in two. The first half follows the imperiled Saroo as a young boy (Sunny Pawar) who finds himself lost in the urban nightmare of Calcutta, thousands of kilometres from home. Not speaking the common language of Bengali, he’s unable to converse with anyone.

He ekes out a living as a beggar, narrowly avoiding enslavement as a child prostitute, before winding up in an orphanage, whence he is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham). In the second half of the film we follow adult Saroo (Dev Patel) as he sets off on his obsessive quest to find his family. On the way he falls in love with Lucy (Rooney Mara).

The technical elements of the film are perfectly realised. The photography balances beautiful, epic shots of the Indian and Tasmanian landscapes with pathos-laden close-ups of the main characters. The score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran is emotively symphonic without a surplus of schmaltz. Despite the length of the film, the construction of the story is economic enough to maintain the viewer’s interest throughout.

Eight-year-old Sunny Pawar, who plays a young Saroo Brierley, is the film’s standout. Long Way Home Productions

It is an effective, pleasurably melodramatic film – I challenge anyone to see it without reaching for the tissue box. The performances are excellent, with 8-year old Pawar, lighting every scene with his delightful smile, the standout.

Unfortunately, like most commercial films, Lion doesn’t say anything particularly meaningful about the world. In film terms, this is called burbanking: reducing the political problems that form its contextual backdrop to matters of individual psychology and morality.

The opening sequences, with overhead shots of the Indian countryside contrasting with images of a train cutting into it, gesture towards the dialectical relationship between rural poverty and urban development.

However, instead of following this through to its logical conclusion – that is, a critique of capitalist globalisation and its attendant economic inequality – it veers towards sentimentalism, sticking to the saccharine path paved by hundreds of Hollywood “overcoming the odds” pics before it.

A film that is underpinned by the contrast between India’s urban and rural poverty and Australia’s affluence cannot help but be about the processes of capitalist modernity and urbanisation that underpin contemporary consumer culture. Yet Lion eschews any genuine political engagement.

Nicole Kidman’s character, Sue Brierley, brings an unsettling racial fetishism to the movie. Long Way Home Productions

In a sense, this is hardly surprising. But it is particularly notable in Lion because of the film’s ultimate posturing regarding the perilous situation for children in India.

It ends with captions telling us that “Over 80,000 children go missing in India each year”, before pointing towards the virtues of Western adoption of Indian children. It’s certainly one of the more explicitly Orientalist visions I’ve seen on the big screen this year.

The film approaches consciousness of this in one particularly bizarre scene in which Sue tells adult Saroo about the “vision” she had as a twelve year old girl that made her determined to, one day, “have two brown-skinned boys.” She’s in tears, and Saroo hugs her, with the emotional charge of the scene negating its critical potential. What should appear creepy – a 12-year old girl’s bio-colonial fantasy – is transformed into a tender familial moment.

Of course, a commercial, mainstream film like Lion is hardly going to undermine its own basis by critiquing global capitalism, and, as a romantic melodrama, it is very effective. But as a film about what is a political issue (which its final “message” seems to indicate it thinks it is) it falls hopelessly short.

It is, in fact, rather hypocritical in its depiction of poverty as the result of some kind of amorphous “evil” and not as the necessary product of capitalist development. There is, moreover, something profoundly Dickensian in its explicit celebration of bourgeois sympathy for the poor – and its solution: physical appropriation of the poor by the rich.

Lion opens in Australia on January 19.

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