Lion wrecked me. More specifically, it captivated my feelings by extracting genuine emotion. Although he’s directed some TV (Top of the Lake on the Sundance Channel in the U.S.), Lion is the first feature film from Australian director Garth Davis. His impressive supervision guides this remarkably well-composed debut. It helps that he’s working from a masterful screenplay. The heartfelt adaptation penned by screenwriter Luke Davies is based on the autobiographical book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley (with Larry Buttrose). So yeah it’s a true story. That adds to its grandeur. But this adventure about family and identity would be a powerful saga regardless. The account is divided into two distinct halves. Both need to exist to properly tell what happened, but one is a bit more affecting than the other.
The tale concerns Saroo, a 5 yeard old Indian boy who is separated from his sibling. One night, his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) goes out to look for work and Sarro begs to come with. He agrees to take him, but Saroo becomes too tired to walk. Guddu tells him to rest on a bench at the train station platform and he’ll come back for him. Hours pass and when he awakes, Guddu is nowhere to be found. Thinking his brother is on a train stopped nearby, he climbs aboard. After awhile, he falls asleep and the train takes off. He is transported nearly a thousand miles away from his home. When it finally stops, he is in an unknown world. He can’t read. He doesn’t know the name of his hometown. He can’t even speak the local Bengali dialect, only Hindi.
In the more absorbing first half, the narrative perfectly captures the panic of being lost in a strange place. India’s homeless children roam the streets in groups. Their instant camaraderie is touching but a circumstance that is borne out necessity. The many dangers these homeless children face is highlighted, a child kidnapping ring for one. It’s an unsettling portrayal of a real problem. Young Saroo Brierley is played here by actor Sunny Pawar and he’s a natural. I cannot fathom how scary it was for Saroo to endure such a terrifying odyssey away from home and family, but Pawar’s scrappy performance perfectly captures his struggle. He seizes your attention as the main protagonist in the first half.
The second half is where all the famous thespians show up. Yet interestingly it’s less effective. Of note is Dev Patel. He shows up to play the adult version Saroo, now living in Austrailia. Patel is an actor transformed. His obsequious hotelier in the Marigold Hotel films was a cloying stereotype. Lion sees the long haired bearded performer reborn as a more rugged looking leading man. His swarthy good looks paired with a more somber demeanor. He hides a longing for the mother and brother he lost years ago with his head buried in academic studies. Patel is supported by a couple of well-known stars: Rooney Mara as his girlfriend/fellow student and Nicole Kidman with David Wenham as an adoptive couple. I’m purposefully sidestepping the details of how Saroo got to this point because I think the movie is more compelling the less you know. Needless to say, details about his former life remain in his mind. He begins to research whatever became of his family. Those scenes dramatically unfold in a section that somewhat plays out like an advertisement for Google Earth.
There was a time when a picture like Lion would have easily won Best Picture. Beautifully shot and lovingly told, this is a grand epic that spans continents and decades. Changing tastes have maligned these kinds of dramas with derisive adjectives like sentimental, melodramatic or, heaven forbid, old fashioned. The production is none of those things. What it represents, is one man’s exquisitely composed reminiscence of his life on this earth, a journey that takes him from India to Australia. The narrative builds to a conclusion that had me weeping at the end in an uncontrollable catharsis. It highlights a lot of concepts with sensitivity: the importance of family, the considerations of adoption, one’s own identity, the wonders of the internet and love. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.