You don’t need to have adopted a child, or to have been adopted yourself (although I was, as it happens), to find Lion immensely moving. All you need is a heart.
Garth Davis’s film tells the remarkable true story of Saroo Brierley, who in 1981 was born into a poor family in rural, central India.
At the age of five, while waiting for his older brother in a railway station late at night, Saroo settled down to sleep in an empty carriage on a stationary train. But when he woke up, he was on the move.
Garth Davis’s film tells the remarkable true story of Saroo Brierley, who in 1981 was born into a poor family in rural, central India
The train was thundering across India to Kolkata, almost 1,000 miles away. When he got there, Saroo couldn’t speak the local language and in any case, unsure about the name of his village, wasn’t able to tell people where he’d come from. He ended up in an orphanage, from where he was adopted by a loving Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley, who took him to Tasmania.
Saroo grew up a proper toss-a-shrimp-on-the-barbie Aussie, but he became increasingly haunted by his dimly remembered past.
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Ben seems too good to be true, and that’s exactly what he is, because when the family set off on a road trip, the flaws in his parenting become exposed. Matt Ross’s film, out on Monday, isn’t ever subtle, but it’s entertaining and thought-provoking.
In his mid-20s, using emerging Google Earth technology to find landmarks that he hazily recognised, he began to piece together the puzzle.
Eventually, he located the remote village where he hoped his birth family might still live.
That’s the essence of the story, but gripping real-life narratives don’t always make great cinema. The triumph of Davis’s debut film is in bringing it to life so compellingly.
The first half in particular, set in India with sub-titles, is beautifully, intoxicatingly done, thanks not least to an extraordinary, heart-rendingly sweet performance from first-time actor Sunny Pawar, playing little Saroo.
He perfectly nails the bewilderment of a child suddenly separated from his dirt-poor, but infinitely loving, mother and siblings, and forced to live on the streets of an unfamiliar city.
He is wonderful, too, at conveying a street child’s innate, life-preserving instincts, notably when a seemingly predatory man tries to woo him with kindness.
Like many tearjerkers, Lion could so easily have been mawkish or manipulative. It could also have romanticised India, as films set on the sub-continent very often do. But Davis, and writer Luke Davies, skilfully avoid all these pitfalls.
The Proustian sub-text, as Saroo’s distant memories are triggered by Indian street food, is nicely handled. The score of plinky piano music never becomes too intrusive. Lion could also have been over-acted, and I confess that I waited with trepidation for the second half of the film, in which Dev Patel plays the grown-up Saroo.
Nicole Kidman, pictured, is quite marvellous as Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue
Patel has a maddening tendency to overdo every brand of emotion, wearing his heart all the way up both sleeves. But here he reins it in, acting with subtlety and sensitivity as his character’s natural sunniness is supplanted by emotional turmoil.
Saroo is balanced and grounded — in stark contrast to his adopted brother, Mantosh (Divian Ladwar), another Indian orphanage boy — until the search for his biological family becomes an obsession that begins to destabilise him.
This is the point at which the film’s other stand-out performance starts to blossom. Nicole Kidman is quite marvellous as Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue. It is not always easy to play unalloyed goodness, but Kidman does it brilliantly.
I won’t venture into spoiler territory, but there are a couple of scenes between Saroo and Sue which could tease tears from an Easter Island statue.
Lion isn’t without its flaws. Rooney Mara does a decent enough job as Saroo’s adult girlfriend, but the part is underwritten, underdeveloped, oddly tokenistic.
However, it’s a long time since I’ve been as moved in the cinema as I was watching this. That might be partly or even largely because of its personal resonance.
Whatever the case, I have no hesitation in bestowing five stars.