Director: Garth Davis
Weinstein Company/Screen Australia/Sea-Saw Films
The movie Lion is that rare type of tear-jerker; you think about it after – you believe it, believe in it, you’ve been swept up in it, it has you – holds you – but after you continue to think about the mesmerising performances, the skill and craft of not just the on-screen performers but the soundtrack composers, the editing work, the director’s choices…
Lion is thoughtful, slow-moving, so powerful. Because it’s real. And I don’t just mean the Based On A True Story-version of real. For it is (also) that. Lion’s true tale is of five-year-old Saroo. In 1986 he is out to work with his older brother (they supplement their mother’s itinerant labouring work by collecting coal and exchanging it for milk) and he wanders onto a decommissioned passenger train. He wakes up 1500 miles from home, totally lost – he doesn’t even speak the same language. He is sent to an orphanage and finds a home in Tasmania, Australia. The Brierleys (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman) raise Saroo and adopt another child from another family (Mantosh). Saroo and his brother are loved. Mantosh has behavioural problems and grows up with mental health and substance abuse issues. Saroo is a model child to his loving adoptive family. We first meet the five year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) before Dev Patel takes over Saroo in his adult years. We meet him just as he’s been accepted into a Melbourne-based Hotel Management course. He tells his fellow students that his aim is to make a lot of money.
Saroo is Australian – he speaks English, he loves cricket (but cheers for Aussie) and he thinks he was born in Calcutta – since that’s as well as his memory can serve.
But when a trigger reminds him of his earlier struggle – his separation from his brother and mother, his arrival to Australia via the adoption agency – he realises just how lost he is; lost to a culture as well as being lost from a culture.
The first half of the film gives us Saroo as a child. The second half is his adult journey – and eventually his aim, with the help of Google Earth, his adoring and supportive American girlfriend and Australia parents, to find his birth mother; to return to his place of birth.
There’s a subtlety in the performances that allows for a news-story length plot to flow across a two-hour film. Patel’s astonishing performance has him walking with a palpable emotional weight. so His face tells the tale of feeling spiritually bankrupt but eternally grateful for the life he has had. Kidman is astounding as the mother (“we’ve been blessed”) so accepting and understanding of her son’s need to try to find his home.
Lion doesn’t so much play on our emotions as it does check they’re there. Saroo’s realisation – that his purpose in life is to get back to where he came from, to stop himself from feeling lost, to fix a hole in his heart – can only mean something if you allow it to; a condition of being human you would hope.
Lion’s extraordinary tale works because of the vision of the director and the way the actors worked together to help to tell the story. It’s a film that treats its audience with full respect, that treats its subject matter with the right amount of reverence; that tells more by saying less.