Director: Garth Davis
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman
Lion is the kind of movie that you leave feeling compelled to do some investigating because even if you can accept that its incredible premise is true, you have a hard time believing that it could actually have happened the way that the movie tells it. Yet it did. Real life is stranger than fiction can ever hope to be, and more heart-warming, too. That natural sense of awe that flows from the fact that the story is true ends up doing a fair bit of the heavy lifting in Lion, which is overall a fine film with great performances, but which is strangely uneven in its storytelling, getting off to a rollicking start, slowing way, way down in its second half, and then unfolding its finale at lightning speed. But man, what a finale that is.
Based on Saroo Brierley's memoir "A Long Way Home," Lion recounts his impossible journey from central India to the streets of Calcutta to Tasmania and back again. It begins with him as a small child (Sunny Pawar), living with his mother (Priyanka Bose), his younger sister, and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), whom he idolizes and begs to take with him when he goes to the city of Burhanpur for the night to do some work. Guddu agrees but by the time they arrive Saroo is tired, so Guddu leaves him at the train station with the promise that he'll be back for him and while he's waiting for him, Saroo falls asleep on an empty train. When he wakes up the train is moving and by the time it stops and he's able to get off, it has brought him to Calcutta, a city almost 930 miles from his home and where the language is unfamiliar to him. A series of small adventures follows in which Saroo learns to fend for himself as best he can on the streets, discovering the dangers that lurk there in the process.
This first stretch of the film is easily the best, even though it rests so firmly on the shoulders of Pawar, both young and a first time actor. Saroo emerges like a character out of Dickens, albeit with an acknowledgement of the very real dangers of sexual exploitation faced by vulnerable children. Even with this edging of darkness the section feels light on its feet, unfolding at a breathless pace as it puts Saroo in a series of dire situations in order to capture the scope of his peril. Even once he's off the streets and taken to an orphanage, that sense of danger lurking beneath every interaction does not abate and the memory of it follow Saroo once he's adopted out to John (David Wenham) and Sue (Nicole Kidman) Brierley and sent to Tasmania to live, joined a year later by Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who suffers from fits as a result of the trauma he endured.
In the film's second half, we're introduced to an adult Saroo (Dev Patel), who has grown up to be the good, responsible son to Mantosh's troubled outsider, living in self-exile and a drug induced haze. Because of the pain that Sue and John feel as a result of Mantosh's troubles, Saroo tries to be the best he can in order to ease that burden on them, struggling only to be empathetic to his brother, who he wishes would just straighten up and act right. It's here that the film suddenly slows down, with Saroo going off to Melbourne to study hotel management, getting a girlfriend (Rooney Mara, far too overqualified for so undemanding a role as this), and making friends to whom he confides the full story (so far as he can remember it) of his origins after being reminded of something from his early childhood. Suddenly plagued by memories and haunted by thoughts of the family he left behind, he begins to descend into depression and obsess over Google Earth as he tries to map the course that took him so far from home.
Patel is wonderful as the grown up Saroo, giving a complex performance that gives equal weight to the happiness and gratitude that he feels to the family that chose him, and to the two conflicting guilts that are tearing him apart. One is the guilt over leaving, which he can only alleviate by finding his way back to his mother so that she may know that he's alright; the other guilt is the one he feels towards Sue and John, derived from his feeling that by wanting to find his birth family, he's somehow rejecting the life that they have given him. It's a quiet and very interior performance that nevertheless manages to convey the depths of Saroo's growing despair, with perhaps the best scene (for both the performance and the film itself) occurring late in the film between Patel and Kidman, in which Sue displays a layer to her character that her son had never suspected existed. From that scene the story begins to unspool itself quickly, returning to the breakneck energy of the first half of the film as it rushes towards its conclusion. If Lion had been more consistent in its pacing, it might have made the difference between being a very good and a great film, however, the performances are strong enough to make up for the shortcomings of the storytelling. Lion is a deeply moving story about one man's journey home, and a nice reminder in our cynical times that while technology may very well be the end of us all, every once in a while it can actually be a tool for good.