The film is divided into two parts, the first following Saroo’s harrowing experience as a five-year-old (played by Sunny Pawar) when he becomes trapped on a train and ends up lost and alone in the teeming city of Kolkata, 1600km from his home.
Unable to speak the language, he survives as a beggar, and after several narrow escapes from enslavement he ends up in an orphanage, which to Australian sensibilities seems more like a prison. Fortunately, Saroo gets away from the orphanage through being adopted by Tasmanian Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
In the second half of the film, we follow adult Saroo (Dev Patel) as he is drawn into what becomes an obsessive quest to find his birth family, with the help and support of his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara).
Lion is an Australian production, adapted from Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home by the deft screenwriting of Luke Davies and skilfully directed by Garth Davis, whose most recent project was co-directing the TV series Top of the Lake with Jane Campion.
There is much to appreciate while watching this film. Greig Fraser’s cinematography is superb, with the Kolkata scenes of urban poverty powerfully evoking Saroo’s feelings of alienation and loss. Lion is visually stunning cinema, and Davis perfectly balances Fraser’s shots of sweeping aerial landscapes of both India and Tasmania with striking close-up work of the main characters.
The exquisite score manages to tread the line between being emotive and dramatic without falling into schmaltz.
But the standout element of the film is the performance of Sunny Pawar. He is simply astonishing, lighting up the screen with his presence. The Indian cast is brilliant, especially the actors playing Saroo’s brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose), but Pawar’s performance makes even Dev Patel’s mastery of the Australian accent pale by comparison.
With such a storyline it would be easy for the film to tip over into sentimental melodrama. Davis exercises incredible cinematic control, managing to dramatise Saroo’s loss of cultural identity and internal conflict with subtlety and nuance.
The film’s final scenes might feel a little predictable, but overall Lion is an admirable example of the way a personal story can shed light on broader issues such as identity, poverty and global inequality. I defy anyone to see this film without needing to break out the tissues.
Originally published by InDaily 29.01.2017