Even if you know how it turns out-which, given the publicity of the memoir on which it is based and the marketing for the film itself, you probably do-Lion works as an emotionally stirring portrait of sheer determination driven by the need to know where one comes from. It is also an intriguing portrait of the unexpected uses of modern technologies and the previously unimagined visual access to the world they grant us.
The story opens in a small village in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, where we meet 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his slightly older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), who live in abject poverty with their mother and sister. One night, Saroo tags along with Guddu to a train station in the nearby city of Burhanpur, where Guddu makes money scavenging train cars all night. Saroo, who insists that he is strong, nevertheless grows so tired that he falls asleep on a bench. When he wakes up and finds that Guddu is not there, he boards and gets trapped on what turns out to be a decommissioned train that then travels nearly 1,000 miles to the enormous Howrah railway station in Calcultta. Lost in the huge, teeming city, which is filled with people who speak Bengali instead of Hindi, Saroo has no way of returning home. He escapes human traffickers not once, but twice, and eventually winds up in an orphanage where he is adopted by John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman), a kindly couple in Tasmania, Australia. He is, in this regard, extraordinarily lucky, as he is adopted before too much trauma sets in, which cannot be said for his adopted brother Mantosh, whom the Brierleys bring home from India the following year.
When Saroo becomes a young man (now played by Dev Patel), a series of events conspire to undermine his adopted identity as an Australian and compels him to begin searching for his biological family in India, a seemingly impossible task given the enormity of the country, the passage of nearly 25 years, and the dim memories he has of a village the name of which he doesn't even know. He is encouraged by his girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara), although his increasing obsession with finding his place in India eventually drives a wedge between them. It also separates him from his adopted parents because he refuses to tell them what he is doing for fear of hurting their feelings. For months and months Saroo makes use of the satellite imagery on Google Earth, tracing railways extending out of the Howrah railway station in hopes of finding his way back to his birthplace and reuniting with the family that he knows has been searching for him all this time. Thus, his need to find the village from which he came is driven by both his desire to understand his own identity and to put to rest any pain his family has been suffering in not knowing where he is.
Scripted by Luke Davies from Saroo's 2013 memoir A Long Journey Home, Lion hits a lot of familiar beats and moves along the expected dramatic ups and downs, sometimes to its detriment (there are parts that feel a bit too expected and familiar and predictable), but never to the point that it feels less than emotionally genuine. It is buoyed by the excellent performances, which range from Dev Patel's balance of determination and potential mania, Nicole Kidman's emotional nakedness (she was nominated for an Oscar), and especially young Sunny Pawar's wide-eyed innocence in the film's first half. Pawar's portrayal of Saroo as a young child is crucial to establishing the film's emotional stakes, and he never hits a false note in earning both our sympathy and our respect. Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Let Me In, Zero Dark Thirty) is at his best in the first half of the film, shooting low from Saroo's perspective and creating a terrifying, crowded world that still allows for brief glimpses of humanity that foreshadow the light at the end. The director, Garth Davis, is making his feature directorial debut after half a decade of notable work in commercials, documentary, and television (he co-directed the 2012 mini-series Top of the Lake with Jane Campion). No doubt we will be seeing more from him in the future.
Copyright © 2017 James Kendrick
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All images copyright © Anchor Bay Entertainment
Overall Rating: (3)
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