It was the kind of astonishing story only true life can deliver: Saroo Brierly, lost at the age of 5, found on the streets of Kolkata, adopted by an Australian family. Decades later, with only the vaguest memories of his village, he used Google Earth to find his way home. This is the kind of overwhelming story that cinema often doesn’t distil very well, but in the hands of Garth Davis (‘Top Of The Lake’), Lion is a dignified, authentic and highly moving crowd-pleaser, with knockout performances from Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman and the young Sunny Pawar.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with Slumdog Millionaire, but this is a far grittier pearl. Probing insistently at the tangled ideas of family and brotherhood through Greig Fraser’s elegant camera, Lion proves to be a powerful and distressing reminder of how fragile and disposable a child’s life can be. Yet its most truly Dickensian scenes are played out calmly, with respect, meaning this is a film which consistently engages.
Although Dev Patel headlines, Sunny Pawar leads the way. Most of the film is set in a parched, dusty India where train tracks frame the story. Starting out in the Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh in 1986, Davis gives us the brothers Saroo (Pawar) and Guddu, who steal coal in exchange for milk to bring their labourer mother. One night the two are separated at a railway station. Saroo falls asleep on a train and ends up 1600 miles away in Kolkata.
In short order, his very existence – let alone survival – has become tenuous, beyond fragile. He speaks Hindi, not Bengali, making him even more isolated. He watches as street kids are rousted; he meets a woman who sets him up with a dangerous man; he ends up with the police but doesn’t know his mother’s name or where his village is. But Saroo is lucky. He is eventually adopted by a loving couple from Australia, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman).
Director Davis is helped tremendously by the quality of his cast. Dev Patel more than holds the centre as the adult Saroo, the lost boy who finds it impossible to become a man. Nicole Kidman is magnetic as his forceful adoptive mother Sue, and Rooney Mara helps as the girlfriend he meets on a hotel management course in Melbourne. The script, by Luke Davies, is consistently sensitive. Fittingly, with its Indian roots, Lion has a strongly spiritual element. The story dictates that the adult Saroo should spend a lot of time on Google Earth, of course, but Davis doesn’t allow the search to weigh down the film’s themes. By this time, anyway, much of the audience will be reaching for their handkerchiefs.
If Saroo’s story seems out of this world, the team behind this film have risen to meet the challenge it sets. There may be a sense of inevitability about Saroo’s ultimate destination, but what counts is the journey.
– Fionnuala Halligan, ScreenDaily