Being nominated for and then winning a big film award like an Oscar® or a Golden Globe® has a lot to do with how much and how well your producer hypes your film. Take the film, THE ENGLISH PATIENT, which won the Best Picture Oscar® in 1996. Yes, it was a very good film (if a little OTT on the melodrama) but was it a better picture than its rivals, FARGO and SHINE? How about SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, which won the Best Picture Oscar® in 1998? Also a great film but was it better than SAVING PRIVATE RYAN? How about CHICAGO, which beat out THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE TWO TOWERS and THE PIANIST in 2002, or THE KING’S SPEECH, which beat out BLACK SWAN in 2010?
Okay, I’ll admit I would have voted for THE KING’S SPEECH too.
All these Oscar®-winning films have something in common — they were all produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein. These guys are masters at hyping films. They’re so good, in fact, that they’ll even hype films that simply aren’t worthy of a nomination. They thought they had worked out how to turn lead into gold with the 2012 film, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. It garnered eight Oscar® nominations; however, it only took home one statuette going to Jennifer Lawrence for Best Actress. They tried their alchemy again last year with the film, CAROL, but failed again. It received six Oscar® nominations but was completely shut out of the winner’s circle. Even so, because these two films received so many nominations, they probably did much better at the box office than they deserved.
The Weinstein brothers are back this year, this time hyping their latest film, LION, starring Dev Patel (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE), Nicole Kidman (GRACE OF MONACO) and Rooney Mara (CAROL). It’s up against some very stiff competition for the Best Picture Oscar®, competing against the likes of ARRIVAL, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, MOONLIGHT and, the heavy favourite (and highly over-rated), LA LA LAND. Does it deserve to be there? I’ll get to that shortly but does it matter if it wins? To the Weinsteins, yes and no. Of course, they want the film to win awards but the brothers have already won at the box office.
LION tells the true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian boy who was adopted by a couple in Hobart, Tasmania in the late 1980s when he was about six years old. Saroo (played in the film by newcomer Sunny Pawar) was a fearless little tyke who was living in a small town in central India. He and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) would go out during the day and pick up odd jobs here and there to help their mother and younger siblings make ends meet. One night, while Guddu went off on a scavenging mission, Saroo fell asleep on a railway station bench. When he woke up hours later, his brother was nowhere to be found. Thinking Guddu had fallen asleep on a train, Saroo climbed on board and went back to sleep. When he woke up, the train had left the station, heading for parts unknown. Saroo found himself locked inside and, two days later, ended up in Calcutta where the train went back into service.
Not knowing where he was or where he came from, he scrounged around the streets for a few days finding food and shelter. Eventually, he was taken to the Indian Society for Sponsorship and Adoption, who tried to find his family without success. Saroo was deemed a “lost child” and was put up for adoption. That’s where the Brierleys came in. They adopted the boy and took him down to Hobart. Almost 20 years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) decided to try to find his birth family.
LION is really two movies in one, the first one being excellent and the second being as dull as dishwater. Young Saroo’s journey could be something straight out of a Dickens novel and Sunny is absolutely wonderful in the part. I’ve always thought that there should be an Oscar® award for a first-time performance. If there would be, Sunny would win it hands down. He displays more depth and range of emotion than many seasoned actors — certainly more than Nicole Kidman does in this film. (She should be kissing the Weinsteins’ feet for her Oscar® nomination.) For the first hour of the film, you will be glued to your seat wondering how Saroo will survive. You will also be wondering how long this movie is because Dev Patel hasn’t yet appeared.
But he does, in the second hour, as the story fast forwards about 20 years. Saroo is now an adult, studying business and hospitality at a school in Canberra. He’s got a girlfriend (played by Mara) but he’s miserable inside. He wants to find out where he came from and if his birth mother is still alive. After a classmate introduces him to the relatively new Google Earth, Saroo painstakingly pores over hundreds, if not thousands, of satellite images of India hoping to find one that will unlock his deep-seated childhood memories.
Watching someone looking at a computer screen and a giant map of India for almost an hour does not make for riveting entertainment. We know he’s eventually going to find that one image so why not focus more on Saroo’s other attempts to find out where he came from? Did he ever go over to the Indian embassy? Canberra is not that large a city. Did he reach out to the Indian communities in Melbourne or Sydney for help? Did he use Facebook? It was around back then. (The real Saroo did contact people on Facebook only after he felt he found the nearest large town to his home.) Did the Brierleys ever try to find out where he came from? If not, why not? Were they afraid of losing him? None of this is dealt with in the movie.
Saroo remembers that his hometown is called “Ganestalay”, which can’t be found on any map. Here’s the rub though — it doesn’t take a Hindi linguist to figure out that he’s mispronouncing it. “Ganes” is derived from “Ganesha”, who is the Hindu deity with the elephant head. Why didn’t anyone, least of all him, figure out that perhaps the town is spelled “Ganeshtalay” or some variant of that? As well, if Saroo is pronouncing his “sh”s like “s”s, (a) where in India do people have that same accent and (b) what other “s” words is he mispronouncing? I don’t think for a moment that Saroo’s story is manufactured but it really does seem like it’s much ado about very little.
Dev Patel pouts very well and he has great hair but even those things can’t save this film from sinking to the level of TV Movie-of-the-Week fare, especially after such an emotional first half. Yes, it’s a heart-warming story and the re-enacted scenes of Saroo’s reunion with his mother will probably bring a tear to your eye, but until the film gets there you’re going to be looking at your watch a few times. And for anyone who has ever tried to communicate in a language not their own, the grand reveal at the end of the film will have you saying, “Well, duh”.
So no, LION is not in the same league as its Oscar®-nominated colleagues. Kudos to the Weinsteins, though, for fooling the world into thinking that it is.
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