The true story of Saroo Brierley (Pawar), who was separated from his family as a child and adopted by a Tasmanian couple (Kidman, Wenham). As an adult, Saroo (Patel) uses Google Earth to locate his home.
It's an almost universal childhood memory: you go out with a parent, perhaps to a supermarket, carnival or sports event. Then you suddenly realise you’ve mislaid them. They were there a few moments ago, their hand wrapped around yours, but something caught your eye and now the hand you’ve just clutched belongs to a stranger. You look up and find yourself in a towering forest of unknown adults and you’ve never felt more lost, alone, vulnerable and scared.
For his feature debut, Australian director Garth Davis (BAFTA-nominated for his work on 2013 crime-mystery series Top Of The Lake) has adapted a real-life story which takes that feeling and intensifies it a thousandfold. Even if you haven’t read Saroo Brierley’s autobiography A Long Way Home, it doesn’t hurt to know how the story ends or the details of his life. Lion is more of an emotional odyssey than a plot-driven film, and Davis (working with Luke Davies’ script) unfussily halves the running time between child and adult Saroo. Thankfully lacking a spoon-feeding voice-over or lazy framing device, his tale is allowed to unfurl naturally and gradually, experience by experience, so you feel each moment as directly and keenly as possible.
Which isn’t to say Lion is a difficult watch. Far from it. Davis and cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher) somehow imbue Saroo’s world — even the slums of Calcutta — with a delicate, magical quality that in no way sterilises the reality of the drama. And, portrayed in infancy by astonishing discovery Sunny Pawar, the young Saroo beams with a strength and determination that makes you marvel at his resourcefulness as much as you fear for his well-being. Though his accidental train journey takes him to a strange land 1,600 km away from home, where the Hindi-speaking boy doesn’t even understand the language (Bengali), he is quick to adapt and driven by a deep-rooted confidence that someday, somehow, he will find a way back to his mum. This isn’t some jaunty kids’ adventure, but neither is it a gruelling ordeal.
Lion’s impact does soften during its second half, just as its pace slackens. As you’d expect, watching an adult, Australian Saroo (Patel) obsessively scan Google Earth for his Indian birth home is inherently less gripping than the street-based trials of his five-year-old incarnation. But the story also shifts down a gear to become a domestic drama about adoption and identity. While it’s ably handled, it rests in this mode for a little too long, holding us back from a circle-completing resolution that, when it finally arrives, feels a little too brisk.
That said, Patel turns in a career-best performance which finally delivers on his early Slumdog Millionaire promise, while Kidman is the most impressive she’s been in years — since The Hours, in fact — in the relatively minor role of Saroo’s Australian mother, Sue. Her performance during one short but excruciating dinner-table scene is a mini acting masterclass.
So, despite its latter-half sag, Lion is a triumphant debut for Davis. In one sense it’s epic, capturing an amazing life divided between two very different worlds; but it maintains an intimacy with Saroo that is so engaging, you can’t help but feel lost with him — and also profoundly glad to have found him.
An astonishing true story that’s treated with an admirably light and artistic touch, rather than an overly dramatic heavy hand. Despite a weaker second half, it is ultimately deeply moving.