Film Review: Lion

The debut feature film from award-winning commercial director Garth Davis, Lion tells the moving true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian street child adopted in Australia, and his search for the family he lost.

The Slumdog Millionaire-famous Dev Patel only stars in half of this film, and he has a hard time following outstanding young talent Sunny Pawar.  The first half chronicles Saroo’s harrowing experiences as a child, and it is these memories of his early years with his family which are so fundamental to the emotional journey of the film. Saroo’s love for his mother and his admiration for his older brother are so convincingly played that it only takes a few short scenes of them together to convey the enormity of their absence when he is separated from them.

Skilfully shot, the stillness and silence of an empty train station at night makes the tiny Pawar look so painfully small and alone, whilst the chaotic bustle of a packed train station in Calcutta, thousands of miles from his home, where most people speak a different language, has the same effect. The pumping fear he feels as he runs away from men snatching street kids, the grief and desperation as he cries for his mother, the helplessness and resignation as he realises he cannot get home – the audience is right there with him on this terrifying journey.

The pathos is huge – there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as a kindly police officer asked for his mother’s name so they could try and contact her, and little Saroo with all his five-year-old wisdom simply replies “Ammi (mum).”

Eventually taken to an orphanage from which he is adopted by an Australian couple, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, we follow Saroo as he travels even further from his home and his family, but gains another home and family in its stead. It is here we jump forward twenty years, and Patel appears, speaking fluent Australian-accented English – a far cry from where Saroo started.

The film becomes an interesting discussion not only of cross-cultural adoption, but of the wider issue surrounding children of immigrants, brought up in a culture different from their parents’. “I was adopted here, I’m not really Indian,” Saroo tells his Indian foreign student classmates, and although he gained so much by being raised in Australia, there is a grief here at at something lost. Not just his family but his heritage and history, erased in exchange for his comfortable life. There is no condemnation on either side, but simply an acknowledgement of the opportunity cost — a surprisingly nuanced message for a film with such a singular and personal narrative.

At dinner with his Indian friends, Saroo must be offered a fork like the non-Indians of the party — a brilliant exemplification of the alienation he feels from his own culture. This perfectly juxtaposes the vivid sense memory he experiences of his brother triggered by food that reminds him of home. This marks the start of the defining arc of the second act: his obsession with finding his blood relatives. Haunted by dreams of his younger self running home to his mother at first, Saroo is soon incapable of going about his daily life without hallucinating his mother, his brother, his home. The landscape of Australia transforms into the cliffs of his hometown whilst his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) worries for his wellbeing. Through his eyes, we see the landscape of his memories stretching out, and the audience are swept up into his frenzy.

Google Earth, surprisingly integral to the plot, manages to be fairly unobtrusive in the film too. As Saroo systematically checks all the train stations in his search radius, we are bombarded with flashbacks and memories as familiar to us as they are to him. This keeps the audience grounded in Saroo’s story, rather than being alienated like the other characters in the film, who can’t understand what he is going through. The urgency he feels is entirely mirrored by the audience willing him on, despite how this search has distanced him from his adoptive family and his friends.

The one discordant note in the film comes from Nicole Kidman, though she certainly did her best to bring some humanity to what was a jarring moment in the script – perhaps something important from the autobiographical book it was based on that couldn’t be removed. She tells Saroo of a vision she had as a young girl of “a small brown-skin boy,” and from that moment she knew what her future would hold. That moment put an uncomfortable spin on the character’s seemingly noble cause of giving a home to children who needed one – oddly race specific and almost colonialist in tone, totally out of keeping with the rest of the film.

The climax is bittersweetly cathartic, and. In keeping with the trend of a lot of true story based films, at the very end we see some footage of the real Saroo with his family: cue more tears. Overall, the first half is more compelling than the second, but through no fault of Patel’s – Pawar is simply a hard act to follow. The search drags a little, but the end makes it all worth it. An incredibly moving story and an enchantingly constructed film.

by Sneh Rupra