Garth Davis’ Lion is one of those true-life inspirational stories that are beautifully shot and acted, and thankfully toe the line from being too treacly and heavy-handed.
An adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, the story concerns a very young Indian boy who gets extremely lost, getting trapped on a train that takes him roughly 1600 kilometers from home and family. It’s so far that they don’t even speak the same language. Eventually he gets adopted by a lovely Australian couple played by David Wentham and Nicole Kidman.
As an adult, he finds out about Google Earth and attempts to find his way home via research into old train speeds, maps and radii, and remembered landmarks.
As such, the film is cleaved neatly in two, presenting Saroo as a child and as a grown man. The first half does a better job, harrowing as it is. There’s a horror film aspect as you watch manner upon manner of unfortunate incidents befall the young Saroo, played brilliantly by Sunny Pawar.
His family’s abject poverty is established, as well as his optimism and cheerful spirit. Then he gets on the wrong train, ends up in Calcutta, where the dominant language is Bengali, not Hindi.
As a very young boy with an illiterate mother, he never learned his surname and address. All he knows is his name and their small village. He’s ignored by every person of authority who might have the capability to help him. He sleeps on the streets, narrowly avoids getting arrested, is nearly sold into sex slavery, escapes, lives on the streets again for a few months, and then finally lands in an orphanage.
Let’s be honest, here: India does not come out looking well in this story. There’s really only about two people who are nice to Saroo who aren’t related to him. Whole minutes can pass without any dialogue, but that’s fine when you’ve got a kid as expressive as Pawar.
Not that Dev Patel’s any slouch. As the adult Saroo, Patel looks like he went a little method, actually resembling a lion with his locks and facial hair. He gives a great (Oscar-nominated) performance too—in fact, everyone does. Rooney Mara plays his confidant/paramour and Nicole Kidman (also an Oscar nom) provide support.
But this second half is a little shakier than the first. Certain aspects of Saroo’s character aren’t defined as well. For example, his family adopted another Indian boy after him: Mantosh, who is clearly struggling from mental problems likely due to abuse or trauma.
But Saroo seems unsympathetic at times, when in every other way he seems to be a golden child from loving parents: charming, confident, starting college, his whole life ahead of him. So his lack of compassion for his brother is striking, even if there’s a resolution.
When he hears about Google Earth and eventually decides to try and see if he can figure out where he’s from, other decisions he makes are odd. Why insist on doing it on his own, when his schoolmates were more than happy to help? He might not have made the critical error that delayed his search. In fact, if it weren’t for his Indian friend’s serving of actual Indian food, he might not have had his memories triggered.
He also shuts his parents out of the project, for fear that he might come across as ungrateful to his adoptive parents. But why would he think that, when in basically every scene, it is apparent that Nicole Kidman’s character is a veritable saint who walks the earth, all compassion and zero judgement?
Saroo is also shown to be haunted by imaginings of his family, in particular his brother, searching for him when he was lost to them 25 years ago. This might explain some of his erratic behavior, but it’s not enough (or could’ve been made clearer).
Davis and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Rogue One) make good use of lots of aerial shots that emphasize distance and landscape. Davis is no stranger to making a locale a character in the story; he’s helmed a few episodes of the gritty crime drama Top of the Lake. With a moving score, the climax is emotional and beautiful, an almost unbelievable story lent more grace for it having actually happened.
MORE READS PLEASE: