LION. Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Abhishek Bharate, Divian Ladwa. Directed by: Garth Davis PG. Mild themes. Running Time: 118 minutes
Based on a true story, the Australian film Lion is adapted to the screen with great skill and empathy. Much has been written about its emotional impact, but the film isn’t a tear-jerker in the conventional sense. It evolves slowly and mysteriously, engaging the mind and the senses as much as it does the heart.
Set in India in 1986, Lion follows the history of a five year-old boy called Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who with his older brother Guddhu (Abhishek) is adept at providing food for his impoverished family by picking through landfills and pilfering coal from trains.
One night Saroo insists on going to work with Guddhu on a train to a distant town. Exhausted from the journey, Saroo falls asleep on a platform bench to wait for his brother to return, and when he doesn’t, seeks solace in an empty passenger train which suddenly locks its doors and takes him on a 1,500 kilometre journey from central India to Kolkata in the south, where no one understands a word he says.
This seeming abandonment by his beloved brother marks the beginning of Saroo’s long exile from his family and country, a separation which sees him living dangerously on the streets before he is taken into custody and adopted by foster-parents Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierly (David Wenham), who live in faraway Hobart, Australia.
Sue and John are loving and kind and Saroo also becomes foster-brother to another Indian boy, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa).
Twenty-five years later, when Saroo is studying hospitality in Melbourne, memories are triggered that lead to him searching for his hometown and lost childhood on Google Earth.
Saroo’s epic journey home is told with a photographic honesty that is also poetic.
Based on the memories of Saroo as a grown-man in his book A Long Way Home, we see the world as Saroo did then as a five year-old: the familiarity of a loving home and family despite endemic poverty; the childish excitement of foraging for food with his brother Guddhu; his mother Kamla; the small town’s streets and shanties; the wonder of the natural world into which he is born, with clouds of the butterflies dancing in the sun. Above all, we are aware of his sense of displacement and loss.
We see Indian life in the big cities from the inside too: the rapacious exploitation of small children forced to live on the streets; the sometimes cruel treatment of children placed in protective services, despite the best of intentions.
Lion is about the power and importance of memory.
It is documentary-like in its narrative at times, but vivid and compelling to watch, thanks to Luke Davies’ engaging script which crosses time and space with imaginative ease, Garth Davis’ masterly direction in his first feature film, and the strong, understated performances of the stellar cast, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), Nicole Kidman and David Wenham.
Most astounding however are the performances of the many child actors who are critical to both the story and the film’s naturalism and believability, in particular Sunny Pawar as the five-year-old Saroo.
It would be no surprise at all if his utterly convincing portrayal saw him nominated for an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards.
Courtesy Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting (ACBC)