Movie review: Lion
The true story of Saroo Brierley’s quest for his ancestral home finds an epic scale through intimate, emotionally compelling scenes and standout performances from a top-notch ensemble
Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Abhishek Bharate, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, Divian Ladwa
Directed by: Garth Davis
Running time: 1hr 58 mins
By Katherine Monk
Who am I? It’s a question that consumes most of us much of our lives until we accept the ambiguity of personal identity, or spend hard cash on a dot-com DNA test or affirmative therapies that help us feel comfortable in our own skin.
The quest is universal, which is why Lion will pull you to its chest and devour you whole.
Based on the true story of Saroo Brierley, this debut feature from award-winning music video director Garth Davis is a rite-of-passage story that begins in India.
In the opening frames, we see young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) surrounded by butterflies, helping his mother carry rocks and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) steal coal. They are destitute but happy; a loving family eager to share the few blessings that come their way.
Saroo is only five, but when his older brother ventures to a neighbouring town to work in the fields, he begs to tag along. Guddu resists, but eventually caves, setting the grand quest in motion.
Saroo falls asleep on a decommissioned train and ends up 1600 kilometres from home. He’s in the middle of Kolkata, a city of millions, without money, family or even an understanding of the local language, Bengali.
He soon disappears into the faceless mass of homeless children scavenging food and sleeping on cardboard boxes in train stations, a forgotten soul, a social discard.
Davis works dark, Dickensian wonders with these scenes because he finds a way to show us the chaos of the multitudes while focusing on Saroo — a single boy who is loved by his family, yet completely lost, and so far from home.
In doing so, he humanizes every forgotten child around him without forced plot or dialogue, just a lingering gaze into sad eyes. The swelling sympathy translates into suspense as Saroo faces Fagin-like threats from every corner, eventually landing in an orphanage where children are whisked off into the night, and returned broken.
It’s all too believable a horror, yet Saroo is one of the lucky ones: He’s adopted by an Australian couple in Tasmania (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman) where he begins a new life as Saroo Brierley.
This is where the viewer can take a deep breath, and relax a little. The immediate threat to Saroo’s wellbeing is gone. Kidman and Wenham have a believable chemistry as a couple, and we can feel the love wash over Saroo in each tender scene.
Yet, flash forward 20 years, and we can see the psychological scars remain — not just within Saroo, but the entire family that continues to struggle with unanswered questions from the past.
Now a grown man played by Dev Patel, Saroo is a fully assimilated Aussie, but he still remembers his mother, his brother Guddu, and the swarms of butterflies. He’s haunted by guilt and ghosts, so when a friend mentions a new tool called Google Earth, he starts searching the satellite imagery for something familiar: A rain tower next to a train platform, a rock quarry swarming with butterflies, a narrow street in a small Indian town.
There’s nothing very cinematic about someone staring at a computer screen, printing maps and placing pins in a cork board, but thanks to Patel’s expressive face and Davis’s dramatic design, the physical search is reflected in Saroo’s relationship with the safe, western world around him: his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), his parents John and Sue (Wenham, Kidman), even his eduction at a hotel management school.
His identity begins to fragment with every pixellated piece of the Google Earth puzzle; one single soul struggling to find his proper place in the gigantic picture.
Davis ensures we’re right there with him for every step of his incredible journey. He finds the universals in a world of specifics: the mother-child bond, the respect for one’s own personal needs represented by romantic love, and the inevitable guilt that comes with good fortune in the midst of catastrophe.
Amplified by the performances from this stellar ensemble cast that affirms and massages each tender emotion with subtle, but deeply connected moments, Lion is more than a rich tapestry of feeling.
It shows us India without the typical romantic filters, allowing us to see it as it truly is — the beauty, the ugliness, and the enduring mystery. It also adds a much-needed page to Hollywood tradition with a fully sexualized representation of a non-white male lead, and for Nicole Kidman fans, Lion offers a career-redeeming performance for the Oscar-winning Aussie in a supporting role.
In so many ways, this story of a small boy lost in a sprawling land finds truly epic proportions, not because it’s trying to go big, but exactly the opposite: it’s determined to find meaning in the beings, things and feelings we often deem too small to matter.
THE EX-PRESS, December 25, 2016
Read Katherine Monk’s Movie Reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, and here in the The Ex-Press.com archive.