Lion movie director: Garth Davis
Lion movie cast: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, Abhishek Bharate, Priyanka Bose, David Wenham
Lion movie rating: 4
Most stories of adopted children searching for their biological parents spring from an “emptiness”, a feeling of “not belonging”. Lion, based on a true story, explores the void as not an absence of love but a presence that hollows out everything else. Love fills every corner, every frame, every memory, as Lion looks at the world, from the swamp of Kolkata to the pristine seas of an Australian island, through the eyes of a five-year-old. It’s a view you may have lost sight of; it’s a view you won’t forget in a hurry.
By now, the story of Saroo Brierley, a child from a small village in Madhya Pradesh, lost in Kolkata, adopted in Australia, who found his home 25 years later through Google Earth, is well known. Debutant director Davis, adapting Brierley’s book on that search, had to make it new enough to matter. He does it by focusing not on the search itself but what drove it and what it did to do those around it: Saroo (played as a child by Sunny Pawar, and then by Dev Patel); his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara); his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham); and his half-brother.
A long and satisfying first half tells the story of how Saroo comes to be lost. It spans from the dusty plains where his mother (a luminescent Bose) works as a labourer, to the time he spends pilfering coal with his brother, to the train he gets onto by mistake, to the streets of Kolkata he finds himself in, to the people who seek to exploit him, to the garbage dump he scrounges for rags to sell, to the crowded orphanage where he eventually lands. There is nothing glorious about poverty, and every time you fear Davis may resort to a trick like that, he stays away. It remains an incomprehensible universe, as it must have seemed to Saroo, who takes every day as it comes, including unremarkably carrying around town a cardboard sheet that a fellow street-kid lent him to sleep on. Whoever he meets, he only has one question: Can they take him to Mummy? He longs to hear her tell him he has been a good boy.
The Australian part can’t match up to the stilling effect the Kolkata section has. It drags in parts, is repetitive in others, and deliberately maudlin in some. However, no one, including Kidman, completely playing down her star presence, overshadows what remains central to the story. The affair with Lucy, brief but powerful, is an accomplishment in how naturally she comes into his life. The scene where Saroo’s past memories flood back, of a brother calling out his name, of a mother waiting by a digging site for him, of a jalebi he once shared with them, is as nicely handled.
The film has six Oscar nominations, including for Patel and Kidman. This is Patel’s best performance by far, but the tall, lanky actor also shines because of the light cast by Pawar’s radiant acting. By the snot that rests constantly on his face, the smile that won’t leave his lips, and the wise look that keeps returning to his eyes.
When a girl at the orphanage tells him the first thing she would do when she gets out is to buy a watch, this wise boy knows better than to ask why. It will break your heart.