An inspiring tale of loss and rediscovery. (Review by Patrick Compton - 8/10)
If your eyes don’t moisten at the climax of this flawed but stirring Australian movie based on a true story, your heart must be made of flint.
The movie, whose title is explained in the final credits, is based on the memoir A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. The first half, and in many ways the best section, focuses on how a five-year-old boy from a peasant family in India gets separated from his brother and mother, inadvertently travels thousands of kilometres on a train heading east and then somehow navigates the dangers of living on the streets of Kolkota.
Newcomer Sunny Pawar gives a remarkably convincing performance as the young Saroo who travels with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to try and get work. Tragically they get separated at a railway station and the youngster climbs aboard a train for shelter before finding himself trapped on board during a journey of thousands of kilometres that finally ends in Kolkata. Saroo then finds himself abandoned in the city with its seething crowds and hidden dangers (there’s a tense moment when he just avoids being sold into the child sex trade).
These sequences, superbly shot by Greig Fraser and directed by Aussie Garth Davis, have a similar impact to Mira Nair’s brilliant portrait of street children in her 1989 breakthrough movie Salaam Bombay! Davis, making his first feature film, conveys the vastness of the continent and the sense of isolation that Saroo must feel in the chaotic human landscape that ebbs and flows around him.
The second half of the movie is very different. Eventually Saroo gets taken to the authorities and is placed in a state orphanage. This is then quickly followed by the news that he has been adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).
After a couple of transitionary scenes at his new home in Hobart, Tasmania, the film now skips forward 25 years. Young Saroo is replaced by an adult (Dev Patel), who despite a happy upbringing with his foster parents, begins to question where he came from (initially he has no idea) and whether there is any hope of finding his real mother.
If the first half of the movie is simple and extremely powerful, the second half is more complicated and not always successful. Sometimes, in fact, we realise that filming a true story, with all its narrative lumps, can be more difficult than filming fiction.
For example, Rooney Mara, as Saroo’s American girlfriend, seems superfluous, even if she really existed, and there’s also some stress in the family as they try to cope with the serious problems of a dysfunctional second foster child. This element of the story isn’t sufficiently well integrated into the main narrative.
There are some good things, however. Kidman is particularly effective in her unglamorous role as Saroo’s loving foster mother who makes full use of her big scene when she explains to him just why she and her husband decided to adopt him.
Patel, given the extremely difficult task of emotionally uniting the two very different halves of the movie, gives a valiant performance as the older Saroo as he struggles to reconcile his love of his foster parents and his new identity with a growing desire to reach back into the mists of the past to recall something of his childhood and what was once his true being.
Much of the movie’s drama in the second half focuses on his attempts, via Google Maps, to find out just where he came from, and even if you are not quite convinced by the logical flow of events that leads to his journey of rediscovery back to India, the final scenes are genuine and truly heartwarming.
Despite its flaws, Lion is an inspiring tale of loss and rediscovery.
Lion opened at Gateway Nouveau, Musgrave, Pavilion, Suncoast and Watercrest Mall on January 20. – Patrick Compton