Director: Garth Davis.
Cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa.
Five-year-old Sunny Pawar stars as Saroo, pictured here
with Abhishek Bharate as his brother Guddu.
When the story of Saroo Brierley broke in 2012, most people (myself included) probably didn’t realise the full extent of his ordeal.
Saroo’s tale was explained as “the boy who found his family using Google Earth, 25 years on”. It was a punchy and not inaccurate descriptor for what happened to this Indian-born, Tasmanian-raised young man.
But unless you’d read his book A Long Way Home (which is the basis for Lion) or some of the more in-depth articles of the time, you most likely didn’t realise the wider ramifications of that clickbaity summary, such as “how does a five-year-old boy get so lost and then survive on the streets of Kolkata?”, and “what impact does the whole experience have on him later in life?”.
Lion digs deep into these questions, with heart-stirring results, creating one of the most emotionally fulfilling Aussie films of recent times.
Young Saroo is played by newcomer Sunny Pawar, who is a revelation. Naturalistic and unaffected, his performance is stunning. It’s not actorly in any way, like such great child performances as Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam or Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, but more like the unpretentiousness and naively beautiful turn by Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts Of The Southern Wild. It’s one of those unmannered appearances that sucks you in so deeply you think you’re watching a documentary.
Pawar’s performance, coupled with some subtle yet intelligent directing and editing, weaves a spell over the first half of the film that is so good it can’t be matched when we speed forward in time by 20 years to meet a grown-up Saroo (Patel) living with his adoptive parents (Wenham and Kidman) in Hobart.
In comparison to the first half, the second feels slightly lacking, but really it is only by comparison. The misadventures of young Saroo are so strong that everything else suffers in contrast. When the film reaches its tearful conclusion – there will be barely a dry eye in the house – it all pays off and you realise how glued you were to it all, even when Saroo got older and the tone and setting of the film altered.
The second half is less effective but it has a more difficult job to do, and it’s to the credit of all involved that Lion maintains most of its power and drive. A romantic subplot, used to further demonstrate the past’s impact on Saroo’s state of mind, could have been a thorn in the film’s side, but the script stays smart and is delivered nicely by Patel and Lion’s token American (every Aussie film has to have one, right?) Rooney Mara.
Equally fraught with danger is Saroo’s search – characters staring at computer screens rarely makes for riveting viewing – but the filmmakers keep the laptop-gazing it to a minimum, at least until it’s desperately required.
Much of the credit must go to Patel, who is particularly outstanding in a career-best performance (which is saying something given his role in Slumdog Millionaire). His Australian accent – regarded as one of the toughest inflections there is – is flawless, but he never gets distracted by it. It’s a great piece of work and worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Mara is good too, but Kidman and Wenham who are the shining co-stars. Kidman gets the flashier moments and is her usual brilliant self, while Wenham, in a less conspicuous role, reminds everyone he’s not getting the big lead parts he has long deserved.
Lion starts strong and finishes on a teary high, with its comparatively lesser moments buoyed by the presence of Patel.