Jake Richardson | 02/01/2016
It has been a hard life for Saroo Brierly. Uniquely, his struggles mostly came at a very early age, when he was separated from his family and lost in the vastness of Calcutta. His story has been the subject of a book, a 60 minutes story and a Google advert for Google Earth, but with Lion, Garth Davis finally gives Saroo’s tale the voice it deserves.
Lion begins with young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) stealing coal from a train, which they sell to buy some milk. They bring the milk to their home, away from the city, in a very poor part of India. There, they see their mother (Priyanka Bose) and sister.
In the early morning, Guddu leaves for work; he is young, but the family clearly needs the money. Saroo, who is even younger and can barely lift a rock, begs to go with Guddu. Initially reluctant, Guddu is eventually won over and they journey together on a night train. When they reach the station, Saroo is too sleepy to go with Guddu, and the older brother makes his own way to work as he tells Saroo to wait for him on a bench. When Saroo awakes from his sleep, he is frantic upon discovering no brother waiting for him, and in his panic boards a decommissioned train. This train drives him for 3 days, 2500 km away from his small hometown in rural India to the eclectic, dangerous din of Calcutta.
After months of trials and tribulations in Calcutta, the young boy Saroo, desperate to find his parents, is flown to Australia where he has been adopted by an Australian couple. The film then cuts to an older Saroo (played by Dev Patel), who, upon the suggestion of some of his University friends, decides to use Google Earth as a tool to find his home town, and in doing so his family.
Lion is beautiful. The first half, set in India, gives an understated view of the hardships of orphans in India – particularly in the major cities. Everyone seems to want Saroo for something or other, and even the orphanage he finds himself in is a savage place. It is a testament to director Garth Davis’ storytelling capability that, even though you want to see Saroo reunited with his
birth mother, you badly want him to be adopted as well – just to get him away from the horrors. It is even greater testament when you consider that nothing truly horrorsome has been shown; only alluded to.
In the later half, Dev Patel deals exceptionally well with a challenging role that could have him come across as an ungrateful child, but through strong performance alleviates the more dire elements of the character and brings one into understanding of the elder Saroo’s actions, if not approval of them. Patel’s Australian accent is also particularly convincing. In supporting roles, Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman stand out, particularly the latter, as she gives a performance that again defies your expectations. The real-life Sue Brierly chose Kidman, and she seemingly made an ideal choice, as the actress gives real emotional depth to the character despite a lack of screen time.
At the end of the day, despite Patel’s excellent performance it is the young Sunny Pawar who steals the spotlight as the same character. He is, quite frankly, the cutest kid you will see on screen in 2016/2017. His journey is utterly heartbreaking, and the young actor is certainly one to watch.
The music by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran is the perfect accompaniment to the piece. In many ways, the score mimics the film itself; it is swelling, but not overpowering – rousing, without being cliché. Garth Davis’ Lion delivers a story of loss, hope and courage to face impossible odds and keep going, but it never devolves into cliché. Saroo is no hero, and his negative adult qualities are allowed to be shown while never overpowering his qualities as a protagonist. Instead, he is a human being, and we sympathise with him and loathe him in much the same way that we could any other person we met on the street. Davis’ directorial choices about what to include and what to exclude have given us a real portrait of a young man who had a terrible start in life, and then did something incredible to gain some closure; a story that doesn’t paint the man as some Saint, but does recognise the immensity of his achievement.
With uniformly excellent performances, a rousing score and the cutest child actor for a long time, Lion is an emotional, yet oddly placid, journey through the life of a hard-done-by man who achieved something great through new technologies and a burning love for his family.