Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Lion (2017) - Movie Review

If your average community theatre productions have told us anything, it’s that dramatic acting isn’t nearly as easy as it appears on the surface. Sure, we end up doing quite a bit of pretending in real life for various reasons, but doing so for a purpose that isn’t trying to alleviate real-life social situations can prove rather difficult. In the realms of the acting craft, I believe no singular gambit better emphasises the difficulties within that craft than the prospect of accents. Much like acting as a whole, feigning an accent that isn’t your own seems easy enough but, as someone who has had to hear mocking Aussie “G’Day, mate!” imitations, I know more than I should that accents are difficult to make believable. Making a joke out of how people talk is one thing, but making them believe that that is actually how you speak is something else entirely.

Why do I bring this up? Well, of all the reasons I have so far shown for being excited for certain releases, from the people attached to them to the subject matter to one or two convincing trailers attached to them, this might be the first time that efficacy with accents has been my defining reason for wanting to see a film. Let’s find our way into this thing and I’ll explain why.

The plot: As a child, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) got separated from his brother and taken by train 1700km away from his home. After being brought into an orphanage, he is later taken in by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham) and brought to their home in Tasmania. 20 years later, now grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) has adjusted to life down under. However, he soon starts to recover memories from his childhood in India. With the support of his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), he sets out to retrace his memories and find his original home and, hopefully, reunite with his birth mother (Priyanka Bose) and brother (Abhishek Bharate).

This is an exceptionally solid cast, considering this has a slew of actors whom haven’t necessarily been in the best material of late. Pawar does wonders at getting the audience on his side, channelling innocence in the face of some very, very unsettling situations. Wenham and Kidman are very warm and inviting as the adoptive couple, and considering how Kidman (with the rare exception) has never really wowed me as an actress, I am astounded that she is this good as the concerned mother. Bose and Bharate bring a lot of familial bonding to the bits of screen time that they get, with Bharate making for a rather ethereal presence during the second half.

And then there’s Patel and it’s here where I get into the draw concerning accents from the trailer. The Aussie accent, thanks to the nostalgic imprint of Paul Hogan, is rather easy to mimic but making it sound real is something that is not only difficult to pull, but is rarely if ever done in films. Patel, in no uncertain terms, is perfect with an Aussie accent that is so natural and tonally accurate that you end up completely forgetting that he is British-Indian. It legitimately gave me chills hearing him in this film, considering how much it sounds like dialect I would hear in my own neighbourhood.

While I’ve been gushing over Patel’s mastery of the vernacular, the film doesn’t even get to him until the second half of the film. For the first half, we’re following Pawar’s Saroo as he tries to make his way home, as well as initially interacting with his family. Director Garth Davis’ experience is mainly in television, and while that does creep through with how many scenes conclude with a fade-to-black, he shows remarkable talent in telling this part of the story solely through the visuals.

Saroo waking up alone on the train platform, his panicked attempts to get off the train, his reactions to a dodgy conversation with Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee), presenting one of the few situations in Tannishtha’s filmography that is creepier than acting interested in Brett Lee; it’s all shown with very little dialogue as Davis lets the lonely and desperate atmosphere do the talking for the characters. It can be incredibly unpleasant, like with the aforementioned exchange with Noor where Davis does the most terrifying thing and lets the audience fill in the blanks (which, given the situation, can only lead to pitch-black areas), but none of it feels unwarranted and, since it’s depicted through the eyes of a child, it bypasses how much the marketing emphasizes what comes after these scenes and keeps tensions high.

When this first half is taken in conjunction with the latter half, the film shows some real complexity in its workings. Now, when the term “complex” is used in reference to films, it is usually meant to define aspects of the plot and/or characters that are intricate and well thought-out, particularly if they are tied to some form of deeper meaning about the human condition or possibly society as a whole. However, thematic complexity doesn’t begin or end there as there’s also the matter of emotional complexity to consider. Emotional complexity is something born out of a genuine understanding of how we perceive and react to feels, tapping into a form of recognisable reality to portray actions that aren’t so basic as to be easily categorised as “happiness”, “sadness”, “anger”, etc. Truth be told, there’s a lot of that to be found here, particularly when it comes to Saroo. Once the memories start rushing back to him, the emotional disconnect and questioning over which of his feelings are “real” feels legitimate.

People could possibly make the argument that the film is manipulative when it comes to emotions, but I wouldn’t consider it as such. Being manipulative in this sense, at least from my understanding, involves jerking the audience around between different moods without it feeling like it was deserved or even fitting with what we see on screen. Here, between the existential despair and moments of elation, every moment feels warranted and hits that much harder because of it. No better scene highlights this than the exchange between Saroo and Sue where Sue basically explains how much she needs Saroo and why she chose to adopt him in the first place. It potentially could have become an instance of excusing the action of removing a child from their natural environment, but the way it is portrayed makes it clear that these two clearly love each other regardless of what comes next. Like I said, I’m not a big fan of Kidman but, bloody hell, she sells this scene masterfully and Dev matches her beat-for-beat.

What makes the drama here work even better is that, quite frankly, it encapsulates one of Australia’s greatest cinematic conventions: Examining cultures. As I’ve said many times before, Aussie cinema is at its best when it takes a step back and looks at its own cultural patchwork, in particular assimilation of the culture(s), and it’s when the film utilizes this that it makes its biggest impacts. In terms of cultural connections, India and Australia have numerous alignments for both good and bad; hell, Chatterjee is a crucial part of one of the bigger examples of that with Unindian. Manifested through Saroo, we see feelings of detachment and alienation from not only the culture that he was removed from by blind chance, but also the one that he was brought up in despite how easily he became part of it.

And then we get into Saroo’s attempts to find his first home, questioning whether or not it even is his home anymore and, most crucially, whether the existence of one negates the impact of the other. It’s difficult enough finding your own place within what you consider to be your birth culture, let alone learning that what you consider to be your home may not actually be so. This is incredibly challenging stuff, although broken down for popular consumption, and the cultural implications end up transcending the screen into the real world. We have a film all about cultural identity, embodied through an actor who, as part of his job, has assimilated the local dialect like a natural and has given the film the push it needed to get international recognition. It’s layered cultural exchange and, quite frankly, it’s been a long time coming for the world to see what we have to offer as a country.

All in all, this is an incredibly stirring drama that bypasses traditional Oscar bait emotional manipulation by making every dramatic beat ring true through an understanding of both real-world emotional complexities and the Australian approach to cultural examination. The acting is phenomenal, with Kidman delivering one of her best ever performances and Dev Patel harnessing a foreign accent like he was born with it, the atmosphere is confronting and indicates that director Garth Davis has some real potential as a filmmaker and the writing showcases emotional intelligence that pretty much ensures that audiences will be weepy for most if not all of the running time.

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