It takes a lot to make a dramatic feature, based on a true story, into something that hits in the right ways. Because a drama can have the intent to strike at certain chords to ideally generate emotions, there is often a level of manipulation to consider. Lion concerns the story of a lost Indian boy, who loses his family, gains another and then searches to find what he has lost. That is the sketch of a tale that will likely draw up various emotions, but the key is to earn it. The film’s success largely revolves around how it carefully navigates this story’s big moments that go from a more visceral adventure to a cerebral study of loss. It pays off big, as the film received plenty of awards attention for just how effective it ended up being for critics and audiences.
Beginning in 1986 India, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) heads out with his brother to do some work and bring back some money for the family. Saroo soon finds himself in a terrifying situation, as he falls asleep aboard a mostly unoccupied train and travels a long distance away from his home, before finally stopping. With a language barrier and little knowledge of where he is from, due to his very young age, Saroo is faced with an impossible challenge of getting back home.
This whole setup to Saroo becoming lost makes for an extended first act that is inherently engaging, given the young boy we are watching going through such a harrowing situation. Based on “A Long Way Home” by the real Saroo Brierley, there are lots of little details and choices that make this a fascinating look at how this child handled himself. Director Garth Davis does his best to display how surreal it can be for homeless children attempting to survive on the streets and what it means to have nothing, without going too dark with the material.
It all leads to Saroo eventually being adopted and flown to Australia to grow up with his new parents played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. Soon after this, we come to follow an older Saroo played by Dev Patel, who eventually stops holding back and starts a quest to retrace his steps via Google Earth, in attempt to find his original home. It is not easy, as it puts stress on his relationship with his parents, as well as his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara).
If there is any issue with Lion, it is in seeing the amount of angst the older Saroo goes through, while attempting to deal with his understandably rough dilemma. The film slows down a lot in the middle portion to devote time to the light brooding Patel does. Still, that does not take away from how strong a performance he gives, let alone Kidman, who shines during her big moment to deliver a monologue. This character development strengthens the film’s emotional climax, given how much build up there is to Saroo’s possible journey home.
As with any good story about a journey though, it is the actual traveling portion that makes for the most exciting or interesting aspects. For a feature film debut, Davis gets a lot out of his story by making good use of his locations. India and Australia really do provide the filming locations and we get a lot out of seeing the work done to feature these authentic settings. Lion also finds some clever ways to have the older Saroo witness images that he is calling to mind from memory and blend them with his reality. The Oscar-nominated music by Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran helps by way of echoing a repeated motif that reflects how Saroo’s memory is functioning. It is one of the many clever conceits we see here.
Essentially, the film has dreamlike cinematography provided by Greig Fraser, once we arrive in the later time period. Earlier on, the film has the kind of grit that feels appropriate for the setting and does a fine job of creating realistic peril for a young boy doing what he can to solve his impossible situation. It is also worth noting that while the older and more experienced actors provide strong performances, this is Pawar’s first film and he is great in showing how smart and headstrong Saroo was from an early age.
There is a meaning to the title of Lion that may or may not be clear to the viewer, but is certainly a question that is answered by the film’s end. Some films go too far in trying to get away with a clever title. Lion is one that earns it. The film is an affecting drama that dives into what it would mean to deal with loss and feel guilty about living a different life, knowing that there are others out there looking for one who has no idea how to go about looking back. Fortunately a way was found in real life, which led to a film putting a spotlight on this wonderful story.
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
Clarity/Detail: While the film has scrappy origins, based on an even scrappier tale, it actually works somewhat against the Blu-ray. Making a good-looking, but gritty feature (particularly in its first half) means seeing a decent amount of detail work that comes through well enough, despite some other issues. Still, I can’t deny the level of clarity here.
Depth: Additionally, there is a sense of space that also plays well thanks to the dimensionality on display in this transfer.
Black Levels: Things take a turn here, as the black levels come across a bit washed out at time. There are other moments particularly at night where the image is deeper though.
Color Reproduction: Colors also tend to lack more liveliness. They come off as appropriately natural, given the settings, which makes it hard to knock down a step.
Flesh Tones: You get a level of clarity here, but there is a similar dullness at times that lines up with the black levels not being as great as they could.
Noise/Artifacts: Not a perfect transfer, but nothing too obtrusive in this department.
Audio Format(s): English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Dynamics: While the video was weaker than expected, this lossless audio track is stellar. While the early half of the film is given a visceral element that plays well to this tracks ability to deliver on the intense score, things like trains roaring and more, the second half has subtle elements that are also to work well with what this track has to offer. Atmosphere plays a huge role throughout the film and this is a great way to hear it.
Low Frequency Extension: The LFE channel gets plenty to work with, as Saroo spends early parts of his life dealing with heavy trains, crowded marketplaces and more.
Surround Sound Presentation: There is a great balance here that does a fantastic job of bringing you into the struggles of Saroo. Once again, the film’s two distinct halves seem like they’d be at odds, but this audio track does well to make both work well with the power of a solid lossless track. All the channels are put to good use here and that’s a great benefit.
Dialogue Reproduction: You hear everyone loud and clear.
It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more to the extra features, as the Blu-ray would have benefitted from a deeper look at the actual story and further ways to gain insight on similar situations. Still, there are some brief featurettes that do enough to shed some light on the production and actual people.
- Deleted Scenes (HD, 4:36)
- Behind the Scenes Gallery (HD) – A 5-part featurette that seemingly implies a photo gallery in name, but the actual features are just standard stuff only lasting for a few minutes each.
- A Conversation with Saroo Bierley (HD, 7:49)
- Dev Patel (HD, 3:22)
- Nicole Kidman (HD, 3:10)
- Director Garth Davis (HD, 3:37)
- Making the Music (HD, 4:16)
- “Never Give Up” Performed by Sia – Official Lyric Video (HD, 3:45)
- Trailers (HD)
- Digital HD Copy of the Film
I’m happy that people who have seen Lion have largely responded positively to this story. I get that it has an Oscar bait quality to it, but the story being told is handled so effectively thanks to the direction and strong performances. This Blu-ray does a pretty good job with everything. While the video is a bit underwhelming, the audio track makes up for it and a good smattering of extras helps as well. This is a Best Picture nominee certainly worth checking out.