Rating: 3 / 5
Lion is based on Australian author Saroo Brierley’s bestselling memoir A Long Way Home, which charts his journey as a lost little boy in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, to Hobart, Australia, and back again.
With many films purported to be based on a ‘true story’ it’s difficult to know where truth ends and fiction begins, but this is hardly an issue with Lion. Despite it being the first feature film for director Garth Davis, Lion is a confident, beautifully-shot and well-acted film which admirably pulls back on the schmaltz.
It helps that the bones of the story are so compelling. In the mid-1980s, five-year-old Saroo (played by adorable newcomer Sunny Pawar who literally eats up every scene he appears in), lives with his siblings and mother (Priyanka Bose) in a remote Indian village, and becomes lost after being separated from his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate).
The first hour of this two-hour film is spent with the young actor, and this not only fleshes out the story, but also emphasises the breadth and scale of the journey that Saroo unwittingly found himself on.
After travelling on a train for some time, Saroo ends up in Calcutta. Polluted, frenetic and heaving with humanity, Calcutta is an altogether different beast from the tiny town Saroo grew up in. As he doesn’t know his last name, nor is he sure of the name of the town he’s from, Saroo is quickly sucked into the city’s underworld where he forages and begs for food.
Found on the streets, Saroo is transported to an orphanage where, after some time, he’s put up for adoption. Australian couple Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) welcome him to their home in Hobart (Saroo arrives at the airport wearing a very 1980s ‘Tasmania’ T-shirt).
His new family is everything he could wish for. While John and Sue also adopt another boy from India with high needs, they’re unswervingly supportive and loving. Saroo grows up into a happy, well-adjusted adult (Dev Patel) who moves to Melbourne to study hospitality. It’s there that he meets his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), who encourages him to begin searching for his biological mother.
While almost in the tiny shadow of Sunny Pawar, Patel gives his role a wonderfully understated gravitas and he absolutely nails the Aussie accent. As you’d expect, seasoned actors Wenham and Kidman provide their own intelligent interpretations of real-life couple Sue and John, with Kidman, in particular, outstanding as a woman whose intense desire to mother is almost her undoing.
Cinematographer Greig Fraser frames the landscapes of India and Tasmania in such a way (and often from above) as to illustrate both their great scope and our insignificance, and this is aided and abetted by the haunting score by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran, both of which render Lion a heartbreakingly unforgettable film.
Highlight: Sunny Pawar
Red flags: some violence against children and intense poverty