Lion: Film Review
Cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, David Wenham
Director: Garth Davis
The name Saroo Brierly may mean little to many.
But based on Garth Davis' soon to be bound for Awards season picture starring Slumdog's Dev Patel (adapted from Brierly's book A Long Way Home), this tale of the long term effects of adoption and self-worth is likely to change that.
The tale of a boy lost in India and adopted out to an Australian family won't leave a dry eye in the house, thanks to its simple ungarnishing of proceedings, and decision to hint at nastiness and to suggest mawkishness rather than revel in both things.
It starts in 1986 where the young Saroo (a stunningly sympathetic first turn from new actor Sunny Pawar, all big brown eyes and tousled hair) bullies his elder brother Guddu into letting him come with him to find work. Trapped in India's smaller outlying villages and with their mother toiling in a local quarry, the young pair are a financial life-line to staving the wolves from the door.
But when Guddu disappears having momentarily left his sleepy brother at a railway station, Saroo wakes to find himself all on his own. Inadvertently ending up on a decommissioned train that travels 1600 kilometres away from his home and forcing Saroo into a landscape where people speak only Bengali and not his native Hindi, the youngster becomes lost and in a fight for survival on the streets.
In among the cacophony of Calcutta, Saroo is literally lost, his tiny frame and pleas floating adrift in a sea of taller people and bustling bodies, all heading about their daily business and ignoring the plaintive cries of the child, abandoned, bedraggled and desperate to find his way home.
After time passes and the authorities fail to find his family (as Saroo simply knows his mother only as Mum), Saroo is adopted out into the arms of waiting Aussie family, the Brierlys (a taciturn and supportive Kidman and Wenham).
As Saroo grows, and becomes a man, (now in the form of Patel, who convincingly nails the Aussie accent) he finds his seemingly content existence is nagged by the ever-growing question of what happened to his family, and weighted by guilt that they must spend their everyday wondering about him.
A chance discussion at a party sends Saroo into a Google Earth filled psychological sink-hole as the desperation to reclaim his core essence takes hold and he searches the virtual world to find his home...
There are no 2 ways about it, the first half of Davis' Lion will break your heart.
Thanks largely to a simplicity of execution, the fact most of it is shot at Pawar's level, thus exacerbating the scale and distance he feels from the world around him and an eminently watchable turn from the youngster himself, the Slumdog Millionairesque trappings of the start immediately tug on the heart-strings, but wisely hold off from ripping them right out.
The emotion at the start is palpable and the tragedy of the situation plays out largely as expected, but does so tremendously affectingly.
Patel shoulders the greater burden of the film, trying to bring to life to the reality of a traumatised youth ripped from his past and denied a sense of self by circumstance. And he delivers in spades, thanks to a subtle and nuanced turn that says so much without words.
While some may critique the fact that the crippling tide of emotion creeps up with a degree of narrative convenience, Davis' sensitive script in the adult portion of Saroo's story is finely attuned to the reality and the qualities of those destined to be hit unexpectedly later in life by resurfacing trauma.
With haunting recollections of Guddu guiding him, Patel's navigation through slightly choppier personal waters is perhaps the strongest portrayal of the situation. It helps that the first half of the movie breathes in the right way, and when the necessary time jumps come, you're already completely invested in proceedings, characters and their arcs.
Kidman and Patel share some tremendously empathetic scenes that will destroy anyone invested in the story, as Saroo struggles with his guilt over his hiding of his obsession from the foster mother who's unconditionally loved him; there's a veracity in the smaller quieter moments of Davis' script that drop emotionally effective bombs throughout.
Granted, there will be some who will feel this is clearly Oscar bait from The Weinstein Company, the Google Earth dramatically convenient and the credits sequence milking it, but the truth of the movie Lion is the incredibly powerful way in which it portrays a hauntingly effective and emotionally resonant true-life tale that was 25 years in the making.
Make no mistake, this life-affirming tear-jerker is one of 2017's first essential film experiences - and an unashamed cinematic journey worth taking.