Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara
Director: Garth Davis
Running Time: 120 mins
Synopsis: Young Saroo lives an impoverished but happy life with his brother, sister and mother in India. After an unfortunate series of events he finds himself on a train thousands of miles away from home. Taken in by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) he lives in happiness for a number of years. As an older man he decides to hunt his family down, using nothing but Google Earth and his fragmented memories. A true story!
At this time of year when the award worthy films make their mark, it is the ‘extraordinary’ true stories that bombard us repeatedly. What better way to seduce would be award bodies than factual tales rooted in triumphs over adversity, great character actors doing ‘proper’ acting, and big broad themes? It can all get a little dull, these films blurring into one resulting in none really making an impression. Thankfully Lion has no such issue with this. Yes it is an ‘extraordinary’ true story, yes there are great actors doing great work, and you betcha there are some big themes at play here, but the execution is superbly effective.
Playing out in an unexpectedly linear fashion, meaning Dev Patel doesn’t appear until almost halfway through, we open on young Saroo. A bright eyed inquisitive boy living in abject poverty with his family, he spends his days with big brother Shankar, hunting for things to help pay for food and just genuinely loving each others company. Backed up by some gorgeous shots of India, it is a brisk opening, establishing the key relationships effectively, before a tragic series of circumstances puts Saroo on a train heading miles away from his home and family. Newcomer Sunny Pawar is a revelation as young Saroo. His beautifully expressive face belies an inner core of steel and intelligence. As he finds himself alone and afraid, your heart swells at the close calls he has with child snatchers. One sequence finds a helpful and sympathetic woman who takes him in, giving way to a moment of genuine fear and tension.
Luckily moment after moment of darkness and threat gives way to a semblance of hope as Saroo finds himself in an orphanage and suddenly whisked off to Australia, and the home of loving couple John and Sue. Before we continue I must admit that this first (and strongest) half of the film is driven by the subtle and unsensationalist direction of Garth Davis. He lets the film breathe and sets the camera at Saroo’s height giving his perspective of events real power. Davis continues that subtlety with the gentle adoptive parents of Saroo. A warm friendly couple, Kidman and Wenham sell the bond between them and their affection for this young boy with gentle grace. It would’ve been all too easy to portray these two as the enemies, the ones responsible for allowing a child to be apart from his family, but the film never rises to such crassness. Portraying them as morally decent folk, desperate to help out children in need. Things do turn a shade darker when they attempt to adopt another boy, this one energetic and prone to violent psychological outbursts. It provides an interesting counterpoint to the brotherly love between Saroo and Shankar but is a plot aspect the film doesn’t really need.
Jumping forward 25 years and into the body of a shaggy haired Dev Patel, who finds himself lost amidst a series of fragmented flashes of his past. Falling in love with a fellow student, Rooney Mara in a pretty thankless role, and dealing with the troublesome adopted brother, he struggles to reconcile this chance for happiness with the feeling that his brother and mother are still looking for him. Urged by a friend to use a new fangled technological tool called Google Earth, he begins to scour every train station in India in the vague hope it’ll lead to an emotional revelation. This is, sadly, the weakest section of the film. A touch repetitive, with scenes of repeated satellite searches and Patel looking mournful dragging the film down. Davis injects some life into these scenes with some cleverly edited memory flashes that bleed into the current day plot with real emotion. Unfortunately this also becomes a little dull after the 9th or 10th time of doing it.
At least we have the terrific performances to keep us enthralled. Nicole Kidman is brilliant, selling every moment of anguish and pain with raw honesty. She is in the film sparingly but makes every scene sing. Patel is equally effective, his tear stained eyes conveying a complex array of feelings. His journey is wrought with genuine power and although the film lets him down at times he is always committed and watchable. It is in the final scenes that the acting and film reach a euphoric high note. Tears will flow, and your heart will soar as all Saroo’s searching pays off. It is no spoiler to say that he finds his family (it’s a true story damnit, just look it up online) but the triumphant moment is riddled with sadness, hope and joy that no amount of pre-film knowledge can alter. Not to mention a delightfully moving reveal around the meaning of the title Lion. It is a universal film, one that prides itself on the strength of family, and the importance of your roots. It’ll make you want to call, hug or see your family and that is a feeling that very few true stories inspire.
Verdict: A bevy of phenomenal performances, particularly young Sunny Pawar, and unshowy but powerful direction all combine to tell a moving utterly humanistic story with proper clout. Tears are not optional.