Director: Garth Davis
Screenplay: Luke Davies
Stars: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham and Nicole Kidman
Plot: The true story of a little Indian boy named Saroo (Pawar), who became separated from his family and ended up in Calcutta where he was adopted by a kind Australian couple. In his adulthood, Saroo (Patel) uses Google Earth to find his home and family.
Amongst all the award-worthy films being released around this period, Lion can perhaps be called the underdog of the pack. It’s not an overly stunning or ground-breaking work, but Australian director Garth Davis’ feature debut is truthfully one of the most unique out of the competition. What makes it so is the fact that it is based on a true story, one that is a traumatic nightmare for any child should they be separated from their parents and become lost. Even if you haven’t read Saroo’s story, adapted for the screen by Australian writer Luke Davies, this still makes Lion a frequently upsetting film that is extremely thought-provoking.
For the most part, Lion is one of those films that can be split into two halves. The first and far more effective half chronicles child Saroo’s separation from his family and home after accidently stowing away on a 1,600km train journey to Calcutta. The India presented by cinematographer Greg Fraser is both strangely beautiful and scary at once, from its lush sunsets every evening to its dark Calcutta slums where homeless children sleep. It is nonetheless all terrifying for Saroo, who has no idea where he is, but quietly hopeful that he will get home. Newcomer Sunny Pawar is astonishing as Saroo, playing him with strong resilience and vulnerability that successfully makes him a believable character. His journey allows this first half to be a gripping and upsetting piece that can stand alongside some great foreign filmmaking.
Admittedly, this does make the film’s second half seem less powerful, largely because it changes gear to examine more conventionally mainstream issues like identity and relationships. That being said, it is still very engaging to watch. As an adult, Saroo is played by Dev Patel, who brings the right balance of both happiness over his new life in Australia and guilt over the one that he has left behind. Patel has been rightly showered with plenty of nominations for his nuanced performance, as has Nicole Kidman as his adoptive Australian mother. In perhaps her most authentic role, Kidman brilliantly embodies her character, someone who has selfless intentions that bears thinking about. One scene over a heated family dinner and another with a tearful monologue over why she wanted to adopted Saroo later on demonstrate just how fine an actress she is.
For all its sadness and bleakness, Lion manages to reach its ending on a very uplifting note. If you know about Saroo’s story, then you may well be aware that his efforts were eventually successful and that his story received international media attention. Had this not happened, then we might never have heard about this little Indian boy and his determined quest to find home. And it is thanks to this that we also have Davis’ incredible film to thank for. Part foreign film-flavoured and part mainstream drama, it is a moving story handled with considerable delicacy and pathos to make this inspiring man have the courage of a lion, literally and figuratively.