Review by © Jane Freebury
A little boy lost with no way home. As he wanders through throngs of strangers in the streets of Kolkata, several things can happen. None of them is good.
Saroo (Sunny Pawar) had clambered onto an empty train, fallen asleep and woken up a thousand miles from his village. Alone, he is at such risk, it is, for anyone who recognises that heart-stopping moment when a child disappears, hard to bear. At five years of age, speaking Hindi not the local Bengali, mispronouncing his own name, and without any clue of the name of his village, what are his chances?
As we watch his unfolding nightmare, it is a relief to see he has a sixth sense attuned to danger. He knows when to run. And he can run like the wind from the dangers that try to coax him with false comforts or grab him and carry him off.
Eventually he is taken to an orphanage, only to escape those particular horrors when an Australian couple adopts him and takes him home to Hobart. A cloud hovers over the family, when it is clear that Saroo’s new brother, the second child that John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley adopt, was a victim of institutional abuse. As we see, a home in paradise does not necessarily bring out the best in everyone.
To be spared such a fate, to be adopted and taken to a life of privilege in Tasmania, what incredible luck. And then to re-unite with his birth mother 25 years later. It is almost too much of a good thing to be true.
I wonder how Lion would have survived out there had it been a fiction feature movie, without its grounding in reality. I doubt it would have lasted long in cinemas. Suspension of disbelief would have been at issue. The second and third acts are so improbable. Yet, as is well-known, it is based on the facts in the book, A Long Way Home, written by the real-life Saroo Brierley, who lived to tell his tale.
It is the telling of the tale, as much as the tale, that audiences are responding to. Director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davis, the excellent cast, and Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Bright Star) on camera, have achieved, in deft and understated ways, a big, bold, good hearted film.
Davis recently worked alongside Jane Campion on Top of the Lake. He has also worked in commercials. It has all served him well, and he is in good company like director Ridley Scott, Ray Lawrence, Wes Anderson, David Fincher and Sophia Coppola who also have track records in advertising.
And Lion is another great career choice for Dev Patel, who has played a bit part in other contemporary feel-good charmers like Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
If I had a problem with this supremely uplifting film, it is a minor one. The brisk way it deals with Saroo’s transition to awareness. It is difficult to accept that he only began to wonder about his origins when he moved away from his idyllic coast home and went to study in Melbourne. It seems unlikely. Interesting that the filmmakers chose to change the location where Saroo studied. It was actually Canberra.
I didn’t mind the long search via Google. Had Saroo’s life not straddled the digital revolution he would have been plodding through all the villages of India that were located 1,600 km from Kolkata, the distance he calculated he had travelled on his fateful journey.
The reason for the title of the film remains one of its best kept secrets, only revealed after all is over, beyond the final frame. The timing is all, and you take it away with you and enjoy the luxury of its significance by reading it back into what you have just witnessed.
There has been the odd cynical review of this outstanding film, but it has, in the main, met with the tsunami of goodwill that it deserves.
Also published at Canberra Critics Circle