Searching for a half remembered past
* Lion (PG, 118mins), 4 Stars
* Split (15A, 117mins), 3 Stars
* xXx: Return of Xander Cage
(12A, 107mins), 2 Stars
One of the more emotionally arresting films I've seen in a while, Lion is based on a true story, and its opening 45 minutes or so form a kind of extended travelogue that's compellingly intense. Saroo (Sunny Pawar) is a plucky and talkative five-year-old who lives with his mother and siblings in a tiny shack in an obscure central Indian village.
Saroo spends most of his time following his elder brother Gubbu (Abhisek Bharate) around as they scavenge for food and fuel, but one night Gubbu leaves him sleeping on a bench in the local train station - and when Saroo awakes, his brother is nowhere to be seen. Afraid, and unable to find his way home, Saroo boards an idle train to rest, and when it starts to move he can't get out. He winds up in Calcutta, where he wanders the streets looking for help but unable to speak the local language, Bengali. He's taken to a Calcutta orphanage, from which he's eventually adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) who give him the love and security he needs. But when he grows up, Saroo (Dev Patel) remains haunted by the family he lost, and decides to use Google Earth to try and track them down. The second half of Lion becomes a kind of slow-moving detective story, as Saroo uses the few details he can remember to locate his old home on a map. The film flags a little at this point, but looks terrific and is full of good things, not least Kidman's nuanced portrayal of Saroo's long-suffering adoptive mother. And the scenes involving Calcutta's street children are heartbreaking.
In the early 2000s, M Night Shyamalan was considered by some to be cinema's second coming. People compared him to Hitchcock and Spielberg, then he made a few stinkers and next thing you know he couldn't get arrested. Now he's back, after a fashion, thanks to the relative success of The Visit, his 2015 found footage horror film that combined a clever story with moments of real wit. This time we have Split, a racy psychological chiller with baroque flourishes. Three teenage girls are leaving a birthday party when they're abducted by a young man with a nervous tic and spirited away to a basement. There they cower in fear and expect the worst - until they realise that their captor is not one person but many. Kevin (James McAvoy) has a split personality, and at various points appears to them in radically different forms.
There are up to 24 versions of him, from a prim schoolmarm to a shy boy and an unhinged maniac with a messiah complex. The girls never know who's going to open their cell door next and, led by the resourceful Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), must try and figure out a way of surviving. Split starts in fine style, and McAvoy does pretty well jumping in and out of various personas. But it feels like a bit of a parlour trick and so, in the end, does this vapid film.
Vin Diesel, an actor who makes Sly Stallone's diction sound like Laurence Olivier's, has achieved surprising longevity as an action hero thanks to the continuing success of the Fast and Furious movies. Which explains why the mothballs have been blown off the xXx franchise for Return of Xander Cage.
In the original 2002 film, Vin played a tattooed extreme sports enthusiast recruited by the CIA to go undercover and thwart terrorists. Diesel was unavailable for a 2005 sequel so the producers killed his character off, but now he's back, hiding out in South America when the agency contacts him with a new task. Some clown has invented a machine that turns satellites into weapons and sends them plummeting towards earth. So Cage teams up with other xXx types to embark on implausible action capers that have comic overtones but make little sense.