Film review of Lion

January 27, 2017

(This film review of “Lion” appeared in the Australian Jewish News on January 26, 2017.)

Directed by Garth Davis; written by Luke Davies, based on the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierley; starring Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui

*****

When the history of Australian film of the early 21st century is written, “Lion” will take its place as one of the best of its era, a film both totally unique and fully realised. While its story of childhood loss, displacement, the search for identity and ultimate redemption is universal, it is also thoroughly Australian.

And it’s a true story.  Saroo Brierley became separated from his family in India at the age of five and was adopted by an Australia couple who lived in Hobart.  Some 25 years later, he discovered the potential of Google Earth; after months of searching satellite photos, he recognised his hometown, leading him to a reunion with his birth family.

The first half of “Lion” takes place in India, with young Sunny Pawar playing the role of Saroo, and Abhishek Bharate playing his older brother Guddu.  One fateful day Guddu takes young Saroo on one of his many train expeditions in search of things to sell, and Saroo becomes too tired and is left to sleep at a train station.  Upon waking up in the night, he searches for his brother and gets trapped in an empty train that travels for days – and almost 1500 kilometres – from Saroo’s home in regional Khandwa to Kolkata (Calcutta).  For weeks, Saroo wanders the streets, unable to speak the local language (Bengali; his native tongue is Hindi) and avoids the fate of many homeless young people who are ruthlessly trafficked by unscrupulous adults.  He winds up in an orphanage that is truly Dickensian, filled with screaming kids presided over by uncaring adults.  Too young even to remember his last name, the attempts to find his mother and family fail.

The first hour of “Lion” is possibly one of the best cinema hours you will see this year:  much of the time, the film proceeds wordlessly, mutely viewed from young Saroo’s standpoint.  The media attention has focussed on the “name” stars – Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”), who plays the 30 year-old Saroo, and Nicole Kidman his adoptive mother Sue Brierley, both have Oscar nominations – along David Wenham as adoptive father John Brierley.  But the emotional strength of “Lion” comes from the performance of Sunny Pawar as the young hero.  Like the best of child actors, he brings a stillness and focus to the role that astonishes, illustrating just the ordeal that many young Australian migrants have experienced prior to their arrival here.

The second half of the film focuses on the emotional journey of Saroo (played by Patel), as he slowly works through his traumatic separation.  Patel inhabits his character perfectly, with a great Australian accent and a cool swagger that only just hides the emotional insecurity he still feels at the early loss of his biological family.  American actress Rooney Mara (“Carol”, “The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”) plays Saroo’s girlfriend, and Divian Ladwa plays Mantosh Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive brother who suffers from psychological demons much greater than Saroo’s.

The second half of the film does not achieve the greatness of the first half, hampered by Saroo’s story that is so internalised that it is hard to show on screen.  But the acting and the settings (Hobart and Melbourne) ground the film in the reality of the present day, setting up “Lion” for the emotional pay-off – yes, Saroo does find his family and learns new things about himself at the same time.

Great films are never the result of one person or one factor.  So it is with “Lion”.  It was not enough that it’s such an amazing “needle in a haystack” story: despite extensive publicity in 2014 given to the publication of Brierley’s memoir “A Long Way Home”, too few of us here in Australia were aware of it before this film. The film “clicks” because of so many interwoven parts.  Director Garth Davis’ background in directing commercials brings a stunning visual style, one that brings the story to life in a way in unforgettable ways.  Scriptwriter Luke Davis (deservedly Oscar-nominated) understands how to surmount life’s demons – he overcame heroin addiction and later turned it into a book and film (“Candy”) – and has fashioned Saroo’s biographical book into a screen story that rings true emotionally.  And someone had to bring it all together, to see the screen potential in the story and to enlist those to make it:  this was role of Sydney Jewish producer Emile Sherman (previous Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”) and his partners Iain Canning and Angie Fielder.

There are only five to ten films truly worth viewing on the big screen each year.  This year, “Lion” – also nominated for the Oscar “best film” category – is one of them.

lion-nicole-kidman-and-sunny-pawar(photo above: Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar in “Lion”)


Early 2017 Jewish film releases

December 22, 2016

(This article appeared in different form in the Australian Jewish News on 22 December 2016.)

Many of the best films released in Australia arrive in early summer each year, coinciding with the release of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations in late January and early February.  Watch out for:

January 12

Jackie:  Playing Jaqueline Kennedy is a big step; few Americans are held in such mythical regard as the late wife of the assassinated President, a stylish and tragic figure who was left a widow with two young children after the death of JFK.  Jewish actress Natalie Portman (already nominated for a Golden Globe best actress) perfectly captures Jackie Kennedy’s mannerisms and style in a powerful and brave performance that is likely to place her sitting in the front row awaiting next February’s best actress Oscar choice. “New Yorker” film critic Anthony Lane calls “Jackie”, “a dance to the music of grief”:  this film is a slice of American tragedy.  Given the recent Presidential election and the fascination with “First Ladies”, “Jackie” may very well capture the current “zeitgeist political moment”.   Jewish TV producer Noah Oppenheim scripted, Peter Sarsgaard plays Robert F. Kennedy, Greta Gerwig plays White House social secretary Nancy Tuckerman and Billy Crudup plays the historian Theodore H. White.  Jewish trivia:  The Forward reports that Jackie Kennedy spent the last 14 years of her life living with (but not married to) Maurice Tempelsman, a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany.  In common with President Bill and Hillary Clinton and President-elect Donald Trump, Jackie’s daughter Caroline married a Jewish man.  The soundtrack of “Camelot”, which closes this film, was written by Jewish songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.

January 19:

Lion, produced by Emile Sherman (Australian Jewish producer and Oscar winner for “The Kings Speech”), is being tipped for Oscar considerations.  It’s a great – and true – Australian story, adapted from the book “A Long Way Home” by Saroo Brierly. Five-year-old Saroo finds himself alone and travelling on the wrong train away from his home in northern India. Frightened and bewildered, he ends up thousands of miles away. He survives the streets, ends up in an orphanage and is adopted by an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman (nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actress) and David Wenham, and grows up in Hobart.  The kicker to this story is that using his imperfect early childhood memory and new satellite-imaging technology, Saroo commences “one of the greatest needle-in-a-haystack quests of modern times” – to find his family.  Dev Patel (“Slumdog Millionaire”; also nominated for a Golden Globe best supporting actor) stars as the older Saroo.

Two other important films are due out in February or March, to be confirmed once Oscar nominations are announced:

Denial, the historical dramatisation of the court case brought against American Holocaust expert and professor Deborah Lipstadt, opened this year’s Australian Jewish film festival to powerful reactions. Directed by Mick Jackson and written by Sir David Hare (“The Reader”, “The Hours”), it is based on Lipstadt’s book History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier about how David Irving sued her and Penguin Books for libel.  The film stars Jewish actress Rachel Weisz, Academy Award winner for “The Constant Gardener”.  Other actors include Tom Wilkinson and Timothy Spall as David Irving.

Land of Mine premiered at this year’s Sydney Film Festival and is being considered for a best foreign language Oscar.  The title of this Danish-German co-production (“Under Sandet” in German) holds a deliberate double meaning in English. Taking place in the immediate aftermath of World War II and based on true events, the film tells the story of young German prisoners-of-war who are forced to disarm many thousands of land mines that the German army had placed on the sandy west coast of Denmark.  Intended to slow an Allied invasion that never happened, the mines are highly lethal and hard to disarm.  A particularly young group of German soldiers – most of them still in their teens – has been given this months-long task, supervised by a Danish sergeant who is filled with rage against the Germans.  This powerful portrayal of revenge, culpability and humanity speaks strongly to the questions that faced the Allies immediately following the war: who is to be punished from the actions by Nazi state, and how?

Other films to note in early 2017 include:

January 5:

Edge of Seventeen, an unusually high quality (and soon could be classic) teen film stars Jewish actress Hailee Steinfeld, best supporting actress Oscar nominee for “True Grit” (and nominated for a Golden Globe best actress).

January 12

Collateral Beauty, an absorbing drama about post-traumatic stress starring Will Smith, directed by Jewish director David Frankel (“The Devil Wears Prada“) and written by Jewish screenwriter Allan Loeb (“Things We Lost in the Fire”).

February 2:

In Patriot’s Day, a docudrama about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing from Jewish director Peter Berg, the theme of home-grown Islamic fundamentalism-turning violent terrorism remains highly contemporary (both the USA and Australia).  Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman and J.K. Simmons star.

Bastards, a comedy from first-time Jewish director Lawrence Sher, who has been one of the most accomplished American cinematographers in recent years (not at profession that has attracted many Jews), and who grew up in “the Orthodox neighbourhood of Teaneck, New Jersey”. Owen Wilson and Ed Helms play two brothers with an eccentric mother (Glenn Close).

February 16:

Silence, directed by Martin Scorsese, is an adaptation of the Shusaku Endo novel about 17th century Jesuits who risk their lives to bring Christianity to Japan.  Scorsese has created what will probably be one of the most significant religious history films in years.  Stars include Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”), Liam Neeson and Adam Driver.

March 30

The Ghost in the Shell stars Jewish actress Scarlett Johansson in a sci-fi action film that will bring in audiences, based on the Japanese manga.

Table 19 is an American wedding comedy by Jewish director Jeffrey Blitz, who is an Oscar nominee for the documentary “Spellbound”. Anna Kendrick and Lisa Kudrow star.

April 6

In Going in Style, Zach Braff – the Jewish director of “Garden State” and “Wish I Was Here” – has created a comic heist/caper film, with a great cast including iconic Jewish actor Alan Arkin, along with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Ann-Margret, Matt Dillon and Christopher Lloyd.

denialImage above: Rachel Weisz (left) plays Deborah Lipstadt (right) in the film “Denial”; see Moment Magazine‘s article and also The New Yorker article by Tad Friend, 3 October 2016.