‘Lion’ Review: Dev Patel Stars in Well-Intentioned Awards Bait

Even Nicole Kidman’s lovely performance can’t obscure this film’s odd ideas about well-meaning white parents and their obliviousness to their adoptive children’s background

Last Updated: January 31, 2017 @ 5:27 PM

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and so are the steps to the Dolby Theatre stage on Oscar night. “Lion,” based on the true story of Saroo Brierly, a young Indian boy who was separated from his family, adopted by an Australian couple, and found his way home decades later, may not have been created for the express purpose of giving Harvey Weinstein something else to put in his trophy cabinet, but it’s the kind of movie that wouldn’t exist without awards, and makes a compelling argument for phasing them out altogether.

First, the good stuff: “Lion,” which was adapted by Luke Davies (“Candy”) from Brierly’s memoir “A Long Way Home,” is sensitive and measured, with fine performances throughout, as well as a glossy look courtesy of “Top of the Lake” director Garth Davis. The first half of the movie, which focuses on five-year-old Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar), is shot entirely in Hindi and Bengali rather than cheating the language for an English-speaking audience.

As the adult Saroo, raised in Hobart, Tasmania in Australia, Dev Patel has a smoldering magnetism that’s unlike anything we’ve seen in his previous roles, and as his adoptive Australian parents, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham (“300”) practically bleed kindliness from every pore. It’s probably the most understated, nuanced performance Kidman has given in years.

The problem, frankly, is that they’re too kindly, too perfect. In the middle of the movie, before Saroo makes the decision to go looking for his home, he’s at a dinner party thrown by friends from the restaurant school he’s attending, where for the first time he’s surrounded by people from different national and ethnic backgrounds. The hosts are serving Indian food, but Saroo struggles with it, and has to be told that it’s OK for him to eat with his hands.

Kidman in particular has been depicted as the soul of grace, a welcoming and calming presence in Saroo’s life, despite the fact that the second Indian child she and her husband adopted grows into a surly, damaged young man whose fits of temper make him a threat to both himself and others. But by this point in the story, we’re well into the 21st century, and it’s hard to think of a white couple who adopts a child from another country and never so much as takes him out to an Indian restaurant — let alone raises the issue of helping him find his biological family — as being perfect or even wholly admirable.

The oversight might be forgivable did it not contrast so pointedly with the film’s first half. Saroo lives in an Indian slum with his mother and brother, and this time, there’s no version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” to pull him out of abject poverty. One night, he and his brother are in a train station some distance from home. His brother tells him to stay put, Saroo curls up on a bench to get some sleep, and when he awakes, his brother has gone. He goes looking for him among the empty train cars, falls asleep inside of one, and when he awakes, the train is in motion and he’s locked inside.

Although he wouldn’t know it for years, Saroo traveled nearly a thousand miles over the course of several days, winding up in Calcutta, where he doesn’t speak the language and has only the skills he learned on the street to survive. One might think the sight of a lost five-year-old speaking a foreign tongue on the street would stir some passer-by to action, but the people he encounters there uniformly turn their backs on him, shoving him out of their way and all but trampling him in their rush to go about their way. Eventually, someone takes him into an orphanage, but the overwhelming picture is that Indians are cruel and callous, and white people are friendly and kind-hearted.

It’s possible that this parallels Brierly’s own experience, but “Lion” turns his specific story into a sweeping universal, one whose implications become still more odious as it’s fed into the festival of largely white liberal self-congratulation that is the end-of-year awards derby. Had it fleshed out the character of Saroo’s parents, the movie could have examined the limitations of white liberalism, the damage that even — maybe especially — well-meaning people can do if they don’t educate themselves along the way.

This is certainly part of Brierly’s story, whether he tells it his book or not. Instead, “Lion” embodies that well-meaning approach, and all the harm it can do.