In the early 1980s, a five-year-old Indian boy, Saroo Brierley, falls asleep in an empty train carriage and wakes up 1600km from his home where his is eventually adopted by a kindly Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, after scouring Google Earth for villages that match his fleeting memories of home, an adult Saroo rediscovers his birthplace and finally reunites with his lost family.
It’s a story so astonishing that it can only be true. And in director Garth Davis’ hands, Lion is also an emotionally wrenching, beautifully encapsulating journey that follows a young man as he endeavours to find his way back home against all the odds.
Rather than the typical mystery procedural, this adaptation of Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home unfolds chronologically – a refreshingly simple approach that removes the need for a spoon-feeding voice-over or a clichéd framing device. None are needed here because the emotional tug of Saroo’s experiences, both harrowing and life affirming, are more than enough to pull you along on his odyssey.
It’s the film’s first half that perhaps carries the most impact. It’s certainly the more intense and eventful as a young Saroo (played by fresh face Sunny Pawar) becomes separated from his older brother and ends up trapped on a train bound for Calcutta. Davis (here making his feature debut) powerfully captures that universal experience of being a child lost among a forest of adults, tightly framing the camera around Saroo as he tries to navigate the unfamiliar and unwelcoming city in which he finds himself abandoned.
Pawar is remarkable throughout, even as he rides a whirlwind of changing emotions that runs the gamut between panic and hope. Saroo has the expected child-like innocence, wide-eyed and self-assured, but he’s also resilient, resourceful, fearless and determined to survive. That Pawar is able to translate all of these feelings while hardly uttering a word (Saroo’s Hindi proves useless in Bengali-Speaking Calcutta) is nothing less than extraordinary.
After a period spent living on the streets – an all too common occurrence in India, as a post-film title card points out – Saroo is rescued by an Australian couple and flown out of India to begin a new life in Tasmania. Though still absorbing, this second half, in which an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) searches for his lost home, is far more sedate and occasionally veers uncomfortable close to melodrama.
That’s partly because watching a man scroll through Google Earth in his PJs isn’t quite as compelling as a young boy running for his life in one of the most densely populated cities in the world. But it’s also because the film becomes less emotionally rounded as it progresses, becoming lodged in a monotonous pit of despair that grinds the narrative to a halt for long periods.
What saves it is the utterly sublime performances of Patel and Nicole Kidman, who plays Saroo’s adoptive mother. Kidman absolutely nails the look of unconditional love that any parent will recognise, and her instantly believable bond with Patel becomes Lion’s main draw in the latter stages as Saroo’s need to reconnect with his birth mother threatens to crack their carefully cultivated relationship. That their eventual reconciliation packs an even greater punch than Saroo’s bittersweet homecoming speaks volumes for the strength of Patel and Kidman’s performances.
By turns desperately sad and joyously uplifting, Lion is a heart-breaking story about the inescapable bond of family, one that’s delicately crafted, wonderfully performed and told with a soulful poignancy. In short, it’s truly astounding.
Runtime: 118mins; Genre: Drama; Released: 20 January 2017;
Director: Garth Davis; Writer: Luke Davies (screenplay), Saroo Brierley (book);
Cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara