Lion (2016) Weinstein/Drama RT: 118 minutes Rated PG-13 (thematic material, some sensuality) Director: Garth Davis Screenplay: Luke Davies Music: Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka Cinematography: Grieg Fraser Release date: December 25, 2016 (Philadelphia, PA) Cast: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
I defy anybody not to be moved by the final scenes of Lion, a fact-based drama about a young man searching for his family after 25 years of separation. Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire does a great job in the role but props must be given to Sunny Pawar who plays Saroo Brierley as a young boy. The first-time actor lays the groundwork for Patel with his soulful performance as a child lost and alone in a big city thousands of miles from his small hometown. Instead of going straight for the emotional jugular, director Garth Davis bides his time, laying out a gripping story with characters we care about, before striking with lethal force. Like its feline kin, Lion quietly sneaks up on you before pouncing.
Based on Brierley’s book “A Long Way Home”, Lion right away establishes the close relationship between five-year-old Saroo and his older brother Guddu (Bharate). Born into abject poverty, they typically spend their days stealing coal from trains which they trade for necessities like milk while their mother (Bose) works moving rocks at construction sites. One night, Saroo begs Guddu to take him to work with him. He falls asleep at the train station and Guddu leaves him on a bench intending to return and retrieve him later. The boy wakes up and gets on a train that takes him to Calcutta (now known as Kolkata). Saroo can’t speak the local language- Bengali as opposed to Hindi- nor does he know his full name or the correct name of his village. After living on the streets for a while, he’s taken to an orphanage where he’s ultimately adopted by an Australian couple, John (Wenham, Faramir of the LOTR trilogy) and Sue Brierley (Kidman, Moulin Rouge).
About twenty years later, memories of Saroo’s childhood are triggered by the sight and smell of jalebis (a fried dough treat). He decides it’s time to track down the family from whom he was separated all those years ago. Because he remembers only a few details, he spends several years searching train stations in India via Google Maps. He doesn’t want to hurt the parents that raised him so he keeps his endeavor secret. It also affects his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). He’s nonetheless determined to reunite with his mother and brother if only to let them know he’s okay.
Davis, making his feature film debut, does a remarkable job in capturing the feel and essence of Saroo’s surroundings in the movie’s early scenes. You can almost smell the food cooking in the marketplace and the rotting garbage in the gutter. There’s a palpable sense of danger as Saroo encounters adults who offer help but really mean to harm him. We share Saroo’s anxiety in not being able to communicate or understand. These first 40-odd minutes are shot from a child’s point-of-view, giving Lion an increased sense of anxiety while effectively tapping into the universal fear of becoming lost and separated from the ones you care about most.
Lion isn’t perfect. It stumbles a bit in the mid-section, especially in depicting the relationship between Saroo and his mentally unstable adoptive brother (Ladwa). I understand why it’s included yet it still feels somewhat superfluous. Mara is underused as the supportive girlfriend who can’t bear to watch the man she loves having a near-mental breakdown with his obsession to find his lost family. As great as Kidman is as Saroo’s mentally fragile adoptive mom, the red wig she wears looks ridiculous. Nonetheless, Lion easily overcomes these flaws with its many strengths. It’s a compelling story. You come to really care about Saroo. The acting is very good. The camerawork is first-rate. The climax is tinged with happiness and sadness. Overall, Lion is a very good movie. I guarantee it will give your tear ducts a real workout.