Once in awhile, a movie comes along that is so touching and sincere, without a moment of false emotion or manipulative self-indulgence, that it establishes squatters’ rights and moves into your heart to stay. Cynics who prefer waterboarding to shedding a tear usually misread such movies and falsely label them sentimental. They are fools, and filmgoers desperate for anything that makes them actually feel something ignore the doomsayers and often propel such movies to box-office glory. Lion is that kind of picture. See it and I promise your own heart will skip a beat with happiness and joy.
Directed by: Garth Davis
Based on the autobiographical book by Indian writer Saroo Brierley, the “Lion” of the title, it’s the awesome, inspirational story of how the author was lost by his older brother when he was 5 years old in a train station in Calcutta, where he could not understand or speak the dialect, and spent 25 years trying to find his way back home. The story is so astonishing it’s hard to believe, but director Garth Davis does such a meticulous, painstaking job of chronicling every anxious, suspenseful stage of the journey that you not only accept it, but I, for one, actually felt like I lived it along with Saroo. Here is a miraculous story so satisfying and humane it feels like a Christmas present delivered early.
Heading a perfect cast are the two actors, generations apart, who play Saroo. At 5, he’s Sunny Pawar, an enchanting boy with none of the annoying self-awareness kids are often guilty of when they try to hold up their corner of the big screen as the centerpiece of a sprawling epic. Decades later, the role of the adult Saroo is requisitioned by Dev Patel, who made his initial splash as the star of Slumdog Millionaire and has gone on to own every part he’s played, most recently the pioneer Indian mathematical genius Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity.
Here’s their story: In 1986, a boy named Saroo tags along with his brother Guddu to a train station in the northern province of Khandwa to steal coal, which they can exchange for milk to feed their hard-working mother and poverty-stricken family. Left alone for a short time, Saroo falls asleep on the station platform and somehow ends up in a locomotive traveling 1,600 miles away to another province. When the boy awakens, he’s lost in the teeming horrors of Calcutta, where everyone speaks Bengali instead of Saroo’s native Hindu. With so many dialects in India, nobody understands what he’s saying. Terrified, homeless and desperate to survive, he scavenges through garbage dumps for food, narrowly escapes a child-kidnapping ring and ends up in an orphanage for displaced children, from which he is shipped to Tasmania and adopted by a benevolent Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and an unrecognizably deglamorized Nicole Kidman). Learning the family values of comfort, love and being cared for does wonders for Saroo, who perfects the English language, applies himself in school, and attends college in Melbourne, majoring in hotel management. But the quest for identity isn’t over.
Twenty years after his disappearance, the lost child has become a man still haunted by the loss of his family, unaware that his birth mother has spent two decades searching in vain for him. His frustration is exacerbated by the misery and rage of the Brierleys’ other adopted Indian son, who never adjusts to life in a white household and heads down a path of self-destruction. Still, with the full support of his adoptive family and the devotion of his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), the pieces of the narrative in which Saroo connects the fragments of his past and traces his steps back to his childhood village, with the aid of his computer and the Google Earth search engine, will keep you on the edge of your seat.
The cinematography, from the brown dust and colored saris of India to the vast green panoramas of Australia, is beautiful to look at. The attention to detail enhances every scene. The performances are superb. And the film’s coda, set in 2012 with all of the real survivors in both families reunited with love and gratitude in a group hug, completes the arduous journey with an affection I can only describe as rapturous.