Review: Lion

A powerful modern fairy tale all the more incredible for its unlikely truth. Dev Patel and Sunny Pawar are magnificent, as is Nicole Kidman.

Saroo Brierley’s story is incredible. So much so it’s almost as if it has been written directly for an implausible film, yet it is, indeed, true. With his father having left the family years before, the five year old and his elder brother Guddu picked eked a living on odd jobs and pinching coal from passing trains while their mother worked in construction in the tiny village of of Ganesh Talai.

One fateful day Saroo bugged his older brother to let him tag along on a long train journey to a job in the country. On reaching Burhanpur, he was too tired to continue and slept at the train station while his brother went to work. Upon waking, there was no sign of his brother, and Saroo ended up sleeping on, and then trapped on a train that took him to Calcutta, almost 1500km from home.

Top of the Lake and Love My Way director Garth Davis’ deeply powerful and affecting debut feature Lion captures the overwhelming fear and confusion of a young, illiterate Saroo’s sudden homelessness in a vast and, from his diminutive perspective, nightmarish city, desperate for his family bosom and unsure who to trust. Played with sincerity, pluck and vulnerability by a magnificent Sunny Pawar, his travails, as he stumbles from Howrah railway station towards possibly shifty friends, then actual foes, the constant thrum of threat is greatly enhanced by claustrophobic location work and the restless darkness swirling in Greig Fraser’s shadowy cinematography.

Why the Australian crew? Because the second act of this staggering story sees Saroo, having been swept into one of India’s many orphanages that deal with hundred of thousands of missing or abandoned children every year, adopted by an Australian couple half the world away in Tasmania.

Played with great affection by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham as Sue and John Brierley, Saroo, though still aching for his biological family, is young enough to adjust to a new life. When the couple also adopt Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav) the transition becomes more fraught.

And yet this true story gets more wondrous yet as an adult Saroo, played with an impeccable Australian accent by glowing-locked British star Dev Patel, startled by old memories and troubled by the descent of his adopted brother, now played with aching surliness by Divian Ladwa, starts to lose his grip on happiness, turning desperately to Google Maps in an impossible search for the home he lost so long ago.

Patel’s performance is heart-rending, with so much of Saroo’s pain conveyed in anguished moments of silence. All credit to Candy scribe Luke Davies, who, in adapting Saroo’s memoir A Long Way Home, avoids, for the most part, overplaying the inherent drama of this impossible journey. He gifts a lightness of touch and a soaring spirit that owes, perhaps, a debt of gratitude to the writer’s poetic endeavours.

Kidman and Patel’s interaction, in particular, is quite something, with the notion of family opened wide. How can you reconcile an aching yearning for another mother lost so long ago with the child you raised yourself and not feel a chasm of pain and loss while at the same time wanting to love and support him in his search? But the truth is, home can mean many places, and even many people, including Saroo’s girlfriend, here played by Rooney Mara.

Davis’ film has that at its heart, and the final revelation of the meaning behind Lion’s title is a glorious celebration of the malleable fluidity of identity.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords