The moving Australian-produced drama Lion is based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, a young Indian boy from a poor rural family who, the age of five, became separated from his older brother Guddu in his native village and who eventually found his way home a quarter of a century later.
Saroo (played by newcomer Sunny Pawal) became lost on a train that carried him 1500 miles away from home to the alien environment and the unfamiliar city of Calcutta. Unable to speak the local language, he nonetheless survived numerous hardships in the slums and on the mean streets of Calcutta. Eventually he was put into a crowded orphanage. He was adopted by well-meaning Tasmanian couple, Sue and John Brierley (played here by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who preferred to adopt a needy child rather than bring any more into the world.
But twenty-five years later Saroo (played by Dev Patel, from Slumdog Millionaire) begins to have painful memories of his older brother and his family back home in India. Plagued with guilt he sets out on an obsessive quest to find out where he came from and learn about his family. Using the technology of Google Earth he manages to track down his home village. His obsessive search puts a strain on his relationship with his adoptive parents and his American girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara, from the US remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo).
The film is based on Saroo’s autobiography A Long Way Home, which detailed how he used Google Earth technology to discover the small village in India where he was raised. That obsessive quest pathed the way for an emotional and heartbreaking reunion with his mother, who had never given up hope of finding him. The reunion was captured on film by a 60 Minutes crew, and director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) was present for the occasion and has incorporated those emotional scenes here as a coda.
Brierley’s novel was adapted for the screen by Luke Davies, a novelist whose works include Candy, a drama about the doomed romance between two drug addicts, which was filmed with Heath Ledger and Abbie Cornish in 2006. It is a film that explores universal themes of loss, family and a sense of belonging. Better known for his work directing commercials and working in television Davis makes his feature film directorial debut here, and he suffuses the material with a moving and heart wrenching sensibility. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Foxcatcher) captures the squalor of the gritty mean streets of Calcutta, and gives us a real sense of this overcrowded, teeming city. He also presents a nice contrast between these dirty teeming streets of India and the clean, relatively warm prosperous life in Tasmania and Melbourne, where Saroo was studying hotel management. The early scenes set in India are among the more moving and powerful even though they are largely dialogue free. The second part of the film concentrating on the adult Saroo is less engaging and lacks the intensity of the earlier scenes, and is also a lot more overtly sentimental and manipulative.
While Saroo is a loving child of his adoptive parents and is comfortable with their lifestyle, their other adopted child Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) is less comfortable with his new home, and his surly attitude and battles with low self esteem and alcoholism offers a stark contrast to Saroo’s optimistic outlook.
Patel delivers a strong and moving performance here as the adult Saroo, and he captures his unwavering determination and explores a range of emotions. He spent eight months preparing for the role, and he nails the particularly difficult and distinctive Australian accent. But it is young newcomer Sunny Pawal (selected from some 4000 kids who auditioned) who is the real find here, and his wonderful, cheeky presence, innocence and natural charm as the young Saroo gives the film its heart and soul. He also brings a stubborn and resilient quality to his performance, but he also manages to convey his fear and uncertainty. Mara gives a nice performance as his girlfriend (actually a composite character) who is both supportive but scared of Saroo’s obsession. Wenham and Kidman are given little to do but nonetheless deliver solid performances as Saroo’s adoptive parents.
Lion is a winning, feel-good, crowd-pleasing drama about determination and resilience.
Director: Garth Davis
Cast: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Rooney Mara
Release Date: 19 January 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television