There’s something so deeply hopeful and optimistic about the story of Saroo Brierley. In 2012, after being lost from his family from India for 25 years and with the support of his adopted Australian family, he tracked down his mother and reunited with her, using scattered memories as a five-year-old and Google Earth to piece together his story. It’s little surprise that a film adaptation of his story went quickly into the works, but there was every chance it would end up a saccharine mess, more intent on pulling cheap heartstrings than engaging with his extraordinary story. What a dream then that ‘Lion’ ends up being as deeply moving and unexpectedly haunting as it is.
We begin with young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and follow his terrifying journey as he finds himself lost on the other side of India without his family. Unable to speak the local language and with no way to work out where his home even is, he finds himself living on the street in constant danger - until he is rescued and adopted out to Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). The film then leaps forward to Saroo as an adult (Dev Patel), grappling with the ghost of the family he left behind and its weight on his current family. Driven by a maddening need to piece his life together, he resorts to Google Earth to try and put the few memories he has together.
Luke Davies’ screenplay is both brilliant and problematic. The decision to spend the first half in India and the second half in Australia is superb rather than relegating India to flashbacks, and offers enormous dramatic potential that you wouldn’t expect. Unfortunately, while the first half sings with the poetry of the Indian languages, the second is weighed down by clunky, emotionally-driven and expository dialogue. Thankfully, the craft on the screen itself is so exemplary that this short falling is mostly overcome. ‘Lion’ is a beautifully made, expertly directed film, and where lesser directors would have gone for something sappy and cheaply emotional, director Garth Davis fills the film with melancholy and longing. Our journey with Saroo is initially confusing, overwhelming and terrifying, and even though we know the outcome, it’s to Davis’ credit that we still find ourselves on the edge of our seat. We have only a brief glimpse of Saroo’s old life before he is thrown into chaos, and the warmth and love of his mother, brother and sister haunt the rest of the film right until the very end. Saroo finds a wonderful life with the Brierleys and in his relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), but his Indian family hover over his shoulder constantly, and the guilt he has at abandoning them (as much as it was never his fault) slowly starts to drive him mad. It’s an inspiring journey of self-discovery but what drives it isn’t hope or optimism - it’s a matter of his sanity, of confronting the ghosts and absolving him of the guilt that cripples him.
Davis approaches the film with an assured, gentle touch, but one that never compromises on the emotional integrity of the story. The landscapes of India and Tasmania are as integral characters as the humans moving across them, and cinematographer Greig Fraser captures them as untamed and unaffected by Saroo’s plight. He is presented as alone in the frame, whether surrounded by emptiness or by crushing urban landscapes. The images burst with textures and tones, gritty and immediate, so much so that you can feel, taste and smell the places they capture. The gentle melancholy of the film is captured beautifully by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran’s gorgeous piano-based score, filled with longing, loss and the danger of hope, so that even though we know a reunion will come, we know how difficult getting there will be. ‘Lion’ could not have ended up looking or sounding this emotionally raw but for the tremendous craft that has gone into making it lift it above and beyond what would have been expected of it.
While most of the performances are solid, the vast majority suffer under the clunkiness of Davies’ dialogue. Dev Patel is certainly affecting as adult Saroo, but his performance is mostly that of a haunted man with little light and shade, bringing the energy of the film down in the second act before allowing it to hit its stride again. The two stand-out performances though come from the expected and the unexpected. Nicole Kidman offers a powerful reminder of just what a powerhouse she can be as Sue, a woman driven by her uncompromising determination to protect her children. The great surprise though is Sunny Pawar, who absolutely steals the film as young Saroo, somehow managing to balance his energy and fire with a growing, deep sense of confusion and loss. The heart of the film is in Pawar’s performance, and the whole film rings with it even when he’s not on screen.
It’s an inspiring journey of self-discovery, but what drives it isn’t hope or optimism - it’s a matter of his sanity, of confronting the ghosts and absolving him of the guilt that cripples him.
To be honest, I expected ‘Lion’ would end up being pretty forgettable, but was left deeply moved and inspired by it. This is an absolutely beautiful film, one that doesn’t so much tug at your heartstrings as much as rip them out at the roots. Garth Davis has treated Saroo Brierley’s story with so respect and integrity, refusing to compromise the raw emotional force of it, creating a genuinely cinematic experience. The final minutes left me sobbing, both in their immense beauty, their shocking honesty and their enormous sadness. No wonder this film has been garnering so much awards attention of late; it’s certainly one of the first great films of 2017.