Film Review: Lion

Powerfully told, true-life epic of a five-year-old boy from rural India who gets lost and then found in the mean streets of Calcutta, and who, 25 years later, cannot find peace—or love—until he reconnects with the family he lost as a child.
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Without any hint of where this story is going, the first half of Lion focuses on the five-year-old Saroo (neophyte actor Sunny Pawar), the doted-upon youngest child of an illiterate widow living in rural India. One night, Saroo insists on accompanying his protective big brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate, also in his film debut) who’s heading out to scavenge for pieces of loose coal to sell in exchange for food. But the younger boy gets too groggy to go on, so Guddu tells him to sleep on a bench in the railroad station, and to stay there until Guddu returns. When Saroo awakens in the middle of the night, however, he’s totally alone and so frightened he seeks protection aboard a decommissioned train. But as he sleeps, the train begins to rumble and move—and it rumbles and moves on for five full days before arriving 1,600 miles away in Calcutta, with Saroo still aboard and locked in. No one has heard his cries for help, and he’s had no food except for the scraps he finds on the train floor.

As if this situation isn’t horrible enough for a frightened lost child, Saroo finds himself in the middle of an extremely harsh and crowded big city. Dickens’ 19th-century London couldn’t have held more dangers for a young boy than this Calcutta in 1986 and, as if in a Dickens story, it’s sometimes impossible for Saroo to distinguish friend from foe. Some other street kids kindly share their cardboard beds with him, as well as their panhandling know-how, but an apparently sympathetic woman named Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee) takes him in, feeds him and clothes him, only to make him presentable to a slick, shady character named Rawa (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). After escaping this trap, Saroo is more than wary when he’s taken in by a Mrs. Sood (Deepti Naval), but she’s the one who turns out to be his real savior, and she introduces him to the altruistic Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), who will be his new parents. This unusual pair have already decided to dedicate themselves to do all they can for their two adopted sons (the other is Mantosh, an emotionally disturbed young man played by Divian Ladwa) by giving them their unconditional love as well as the benefits—moral, intellectual and economic—of their safe, middle-class existence on the Australian island of Tasmania.

As noted above, the adventurous odyssey of five-year-old Saroo takes place in the first half of Lion—literally, it covers the first hour of this two-hour film. The second hour zooms ahead 20 years to show the adult Saroo (a marvelous Dev Patel), undertaking an equally fascinating but quite different odyssey to discover who he was before he became a hip, Westernized young man—a man, by the way, who is every bit as winning as the child he was in India.

Patel is best known as the star of the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, and he played another irrepressible optimist in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its similarly named sequel. Lion marks the first time most audiences will see Patel in a mostly dramatic role, and he absolutely nails it—with the help, of course, of his two heavy-hitting (dramatically speaking) co-stars: Kidman as his adoptive mother and Rooney Mara as his girlfriend Lucy. Kidman is especially effective as a woman who gave her life to being a loving and understanding mother, and her son Saroo returns that fierce love and loyalty by refusing to hurt her, or let her be hurt in any way.

Saroo meets Lucy after he goes off to Melbourne for college, and it is she who introduces him to some of her friends, most of them from India. Although Saroo has already begun to obsess about finding his birth mother and siblings—even though he cannot remember the name of their village—he can’t begin to connect the dots until his new friends suggest that Saroo consult Google Maps. It’s conceivably possible to find his original village, they explain, if he specifies the local landmarks he remembers and employs some complex math to figure out the speed and distance that could be covered by long-distance trains in India back in 1986. In other words, the adult Patel’s odyssey is a computer-driven one, and it’s actually much more exciting than it sounds, especially when it becomes clear it’s leading to the emotionally powerful fairytale-like ending of Lion—which is based on Saroo’s autobiographical book.

Can this leading character’s two very different life odysseys fit together to make one seamless and emotionally powerful film? Well, yes, they can—and do. The Weinstein Company is marketing Lion with an emphasis on the satisfying second part of Saroo’s story, detailing his relationship with Lucy and his decision to finally be honest with his adoptive mother. But this second half might not have worked quite as well if we had not already experienced the rollercoaster heartbreak and triumphs of Saroo’s childhood, and the entire film might not have worked at all, frankly, if director Garth Davis had not cast Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel as the young and old versions of Saroo Brierly.

It seems almost miraculous that, after an exhaustive search for the right child actor to play five-year-old Saroo, Davis finally discovered Sonny Pawar at a school for disadvantaged children in Mumbai. Sunny is a perfect name for this kid, for no matter what calamities befall his character in Lion, his broad, open smile appears soon again and his eyes light up with the eager curiosity of a playful puppy. To call him winning is an understatement—and it’s a good thing, too, for the outcome of Saroo’s story depends upon the way he effortlessly gains the empathy of those people who help him along the way. Fortunately, Patel proves quite capable of keeping up the adult Sarro’s irresistible charm and magnetism.

Lion is one of those rare films—the recent Moonlight is another—which effortlessly manages to put us inside the heads of protagonists and make us believe that their reality is our reality too. In this case, of course, because the chief protagonist is played by two extraordinary actors, this film’s dramatic cohesion and its emotionally rewarding payoff are even more remarkable.

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