Certificate: 118 minutes
Running Time: PG
Director: Garth Davis
Cast: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa, Priyanka Bose, Deepti Naval, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Sunny Pawar
A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of miles from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.
Bring your tissues folks because Garth Davis’s feature debut will test the tear glands of even the sternest of viewers, but don’t get me wrong this is no weepy melodrama but more so a bittersweet drama that firmly tugs on the heart strings as it tells a true-story that’s almost impossible to believe.
For all its stunning cinematography (Greig Fraser) and effective musical score this film is a stripped down affair that manages to dispel the whiff of ‘Oscar-Bait’ with its simplicity in telling an astonishing tale. Lion tells the story of Saroo Brierley an Indian-born businessman who was separated from his birth mother, adopted by an Australian couple, and 25 years later attempted to find his family back in India.
Unfolding over two time periods the first of which sees a young Saroo, (fantastically played by newcomer Sunny Pawar) struggling to survive the harsh streets of Calcutta after being separated from his family whilst sleeping on train. Thousands of miles from home and unable to tell anyone where he’s from, Saroo eventually ends up in an orphanage before being sent to Australia when he is adopted by an Australian couple from Hobart.
When we fast-forward to twenty years in the future the film becomes nowhere near as engaging as the first-half and relies on the good work done earlier to carry it across the finishing line. Saroo now played by Dev Patel becomes obsessed with discovering his biological family back in India, but since he’s unable to remember the name of his home-town the Slumdog Millionaire star is left to play ‘Google-Earth detective’ as he attempts to find his family.
Patel is pretty solid within the film’s central role, he doesn’t over-act or give in to melodrama and there’s never really a moment within the movie that feels like a ‘for your consideration’ awards nomination moment. His performance is that of a man who feels lost and desperately trying to reconnect with a family he thought he’d lost, someone who without any shadow of doubt loves his adoptive parents dearly but feels that in order to move forward in his life he must truly know who he is and find where he came from.
There’s some pretty solid supporting performances throughout the film, Rooney Mara doesn’t put a foot wrong in her role as Lucy, Saroo’s supportive girlfriend, but the talented actress isn’t really given much to do throughout the feature other than be there for Patel’s character as his online search becomes an obsession. David Wenham isn’t given much to do either as Saroo’s adoptive father, but it’s Nicole Kidman who steals the show.
The Australian actress, who has adopted children in real life, gives a wonderfully understated and nuanced performance as Saroo’s adoptive mother. Her character is filled with compassion and maternal instinct; she isn’t a woman who chose adoption because she couldn’t have children, but chose to adopt in order to give disadvantaged children a better chance in life.
It’s hard not to be moved by this film’s bittersweet ending, but at times it does feel like the director is almost trying too hard to manipulate an emotional response from viewers within the film’s finale. Whilst not venturing into outright emotional pornography territory (Marley and Me still sets the gold standard for that) these heavy-handed attempts to pull on our heart-strings are nowhere near as effective as much simpler, almost throwaway sequences earlier on within the film that are much more engaging: moments like a conversation between Saroo and his adoptive mother as he finally confides to her his determination to find his family back in India and his fears that his attempts will seem ungrateful to her and the role she’s played in making him the man he’s become.
I’ll openly admit I’m an emotional wreck at the best of times, so I’m not surprised that this film had the effect on me that it did. Lion is a wonderfully stripped back and straightforward feature that relies on fine performances from its cast, Kidman in particular. It’s an astonishing true-story and the perfect antidote for those cinemagoers that’ve grown weary of trips to their local cinema just to see yet another sequel, big-budget blockbuster or the latest super-hero movie.