Lion is a story so far-fetched that it could have come from the imagination of Manmohan Desai – except that it’s true.
The film starts in 1986 when a five-year old boy falls asleep on a train and finds himself nearly 1000 miles away from home. Saroo is tiny but he’s smart and resourceful. He survives the mean streets of Kolkata and is eventually adopted by a couple in Tasmania who bring him up with great affection. But memories of his real mother and home haunt Saroo. His undefined longing becomes a full-time obsession when he discovers Google Earth. Saroo patiently scrounges and searches the train stations of North India until he finds the one he got lost in. Eventually of course, he finds home.
This isn’t a spoiler. The film is based on Saroo Brierley’s bestselling memoir A Long Way Home. The material is made for melodrama but debutant director Garth Davis doesn’t let it become maudlin. He expertly manipulates the high emotions seeped into this story and successfully reduces us to a blubbering mess. If you aren’t weeping by the end of this film, get someone to check your pulse.
Much of the power comes from Sunny Pawar who plays the young Saroo. Sunny is a natural born star. You fall in love the instant you see him. So when he weeps for his mother or runs away from predatory adults, you cry and cheer with him. The India portion is the strongest part of Lion. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Greig Fraiser captures the beauty and brutality of the country with sweeping cinematic shots. When Saroo gets lost, the hordes of humanity appear terrifying. Train stations become the stuff of horror stories.
The jump to Dev Patel and Australia is jerky. The visuals don’t pop any more. The writing isn’t as strong – in particular, Saroo’s romance with a student played by the lovely Rooney Mara, is under-cooked. But though the narrative falters, the acting stays strong. As Saroo, Dev Patel finds a depth and heft that he has never had before. His heartfelt performance keeps you invested. Nicole Kidman also gets one knock-out scene in which she wrings your heart out.
But ultimately this film belongs to the sparkling Sunny Pawar. He’s unforgettable.