Lion is a generally well-executed, powerfully moving adaptation of the true story of an adopted Australian’s quest to reunite with his birth family in India.
Lion is based on Saroo Brierley’s book, A Long Way Home, which tells of his search for and eventual reunion with his long-lost family in the north of India. Adopted at 5 years of age by a Tasmanian couple, John and Sue Brierley, Saroo grew up identifying as Australian until struck by the urge as a young man to re-discover his origins. With no memory of the name of his village or his Indian surname, the task seemed impossible, but utilising a new technology, Google Earth, he identified and located his home village of Khandwa. His emotional journey back to his birthplace and the subsequent meeting up of his two families was the culmination of his life-changing quest for identity.
Saroo’s odyssey has obvious dramatic potential, but adapting real-life stories to screen is notoriously challenging. Director Garth Davis, who shot Saroo’s story for Sixty Minutes, has done a pretty good job of it here.
Essentially, Lion is a film of two halves, the first of which is set mostly in India and covers Saroo’s separation from his family as a child and subsequent adoption. The young Indian boy who plays Saroo, Sunny Pawar, steals the show with an irresistibly endearing, gutsy and believable performance. Indeed, this entire first section of the film is riveting stuff.
Saroo’s rustic little village is basic and his family is poor, but his life is anything but deprived. He idolises his older brother Gudu (Abhishek Bharate), trailing happily along behind as they do chores, explore their surrounds, and help out in putting food on the table. An idyllic (and perhaps a little OTT) scene in which Saroo stands enchanted in the midst of a swirling cloud of possibly computer-generated butterflies is an aesthetic highlight.
One fateful evening Saroo loses track of Gudu at the local railway station, and accidentally locks himself into a decommissioned train that takes off and lands him in Kolkata, thousands of kilometres away. Through instinct and luck he avoids some dangerous situations on the street until rescued and placed in a refuge for parentless kids. From here, he is adopted by the Brierleys (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). His first fearful, wide-eyed encounter with them and his strange new home is negotiated with great sensitivity.
Somewhat jarringly, the film leaps ahead a couple of decades, with the adult Saroo (Dev Patel) a handsome, strapping and fully Australianised young man in his twenties. The film runs into problems in this second half. There are some unconvincing plot points, such as the pivotal moment in which an item of Indian food evokes a childhood memory in Saroo that triggers his subsequent obsession with re-discovering his Indian roots. Whether factual or an instance of poetic license, this food trigger doesn’t quite ring true.
The previously balanced and affable Saroo becomes a bit of an angst-ridden pain in the arse as he holes up in a rented apartment (with a breathtaking elevated view over Hobart), initially with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara). Lucy’s primary dramatic function is to provide an ear for the anguished Saroo; through her, he articulates his frustrations, inner thoughts and feelings to us, as he goes through a long, dark night of the soul. Actually, quite a few nights. It all gets a bit much (for her and us), and she eventually leaves.
If Saroo’s obsession and the depression and rage that accompanies it verges on tedious, it’s down to the writing, not Patel’s acting. He does a fine job (and I have to say, mhis Aussie accent is faultless).
So too does Kidman, who comes straight from the heart in her sensitive portrayal of a good woman who devotes her life to her adopted children. There’s a standout scene in which she levels with an accusatory and critical Saroo about the reasons she and her husband adopted him. Powerful stuff from an accomplished actor digging deep.
David Wenham is wasted, given virtually nothing to do but utter the occasional trite Aussie dad line and stand around gormlessly playing second fiddle to Kidman.
The shortfalls of the second half are relatively minor, however, and easily forgiven as the film storms home to a dramatic and highly emotional conclusion that left many of the preview audience in tears. Two dramatic trump cards are played at the very end: the explanation of the film’s title, and extremely moving footage of the actual first meeting between the Brierleys and Saroo’s birth mother. If that doesn’t get to you, I dunno what will.
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