Lion, originally titled A Long Way Home, is one of the latest films from the Weinstein Company, and is based off a book by Saroo Brierley. Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman headline this ‘based on a true story’ film. Lion follows Saroo’s life, lost from his family in India at the age of five and adopted by an Australian family, and later on reuniting with his real family using Google Earth, back then still considered new technology.
For all its star billing, the film’s strongest moments are in its first half, which takes place almost entirely in India. Newcomer Sunny Pawar is undoubtedly Lion’s standout performer, and plays the young Saroo with aplomb, and immediately captured my heart in his first onscreen moments – cheeky but steadfast. His close relationship with older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) is sincere, and you’ll find yourself rooting for them to somehow escape the crushing poverty they were born into. Their playful, caring brotherhood isn’t expressed in words, but rather, acts, looking out for each other when they steal coal from a train, or taking care of each other on the homefront. This makes their separation hit much harder than I expected it to, even though we knew it was coming. Director Garth Davis, known for his fantastic work on Top of the Lake, has a very strong sense of landscape filmography, and captures the beauty of India’s natural landscapes in its valleys and rocky outcrops, endearing India to us in spite of its many social problems. At the same time, he doesn’t ignore the terrors of city life, including sequences of child kidnapping in a grim and starkly lit tunnel, and the solitude of faceless people in massive crowds at the train station in West Bengal, striking actual fear into our hearts as Saroo runs from each new threat.
Kidman, Patel and Rooney Mara, surprisingly enough, only make appearances about an hour into the film, and even then, aren’t given that much screentime, save for Patel, who we spend most of the second half with wondering just how he uses Google Earth without a clue to find his birth family. The film actually does this rather lamely, in that Saroo literally scrolls around and stumbles across it after months of attempting to use logic and deduction, but under directorship of Davis, manages to create a sense of achievement and unearth deep feelings by linking the topographical images to the beautiful opening scene of Lion, featuring a valley and an iconic, unforgettable field of butterflies.
Lion is unabashedly Oscar-bait, featuring a heartwarming story of a reunited family and spectacular performances from its adult cast, whose standout star in the second half is undoubtedly Nicole Kidman. Kidman plays Saroo’s adopted mother Sue Brierley, and though she isn’t given that much screentime, her timeless presence consumes every scene she’s in, and manages to deliver a heartbreaking, tear-inducing monologue as she fears her family breaking apart midway through the film. This is of course helped by the fact that Sue is portrayed as a mother with endless love, whose explanation of her adoption of Saroo and his brother is genuine and scripted extremely poetically. Saroo, in a sense, seems to be surrounded by mother figures, including Mara, who plays his on again off again girlfriend Lucy. The women in Saroo’s life are endlessly supportive of him, and both Mara and Kidman possess an easy charm to them that keeps the second half pulsating with life, despite almost completely lacking a narrative.
Lion is an extraordinary film that’s well paced and keeps emotions on high throughout. Patel delivers one of his better career performances too, especially in the guilt and fear that appears on his face whenever he has visions of his lost brother. All of this adds up to a satisfying ending as yes, Saroo does manage to find his (incomplete) family by the end of the film. Garth Davis has made a bold leap into feature film making, and has proven his ability to work with actors of all ages, resulting in the uncannily strong performance from Sunny Pawar. Given his keen eye for detail and beauty, one can only hope to see even more of the same in his next film (Mary Magdalene, starring Rooney Mara as the virgin Mary herself!).
Lion will be released in Singapore on 24 November 2016 and was released in the UK on 12 October, as part of London Film Festival 2016.