In his directorial debut, Australian filmmaker Garth Davis brings an amazing true story to the cinematic stage with Lion, a stranger-than-fiction tale of a lost boy in India. The screenplay adapts the memoir entitled A Long Way Home written by Saroo Brierley, who is portrayed by Sunny Pawar initially and then Dev Patel as the story develops. At the age of five, caring Saroo wants to help his mother by providing in any way he can and after persuading his older brother Guddu (Abhisek Bharate) to let him accompany him to work, he falls asleep at a train station. When he awakens alone in the middle of the night, he searches for Guddu but drifts off again, this time on a train which takes him on a two day journey to Calcutta, almost a thousand miles from home. Twenty five years later, having been adopted by Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), Saroo tries to track down his biological family, using Google Earth as his map.
The structure of the narrative means that it is very much a film of two halves; the first is a fascinating fable of a lost boy, looking for the metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel as he wanders, alienated, through the vastness of a strange city. By using linear storytelling and not just telling this part of the story through flashbacks like many would have, it makes a strong and meaningful impact as we connect with Saroo. This technique benefits the film later on as the emotioneering intelligently makes the older Saroo feel believable, and despite a lull in proceedings following the jump forward in time, it does the necessary groundwork to set up a hugely affecting final third.
He barely utters a word throughout his screen-time other than desperately calling out for his big brother, but Sunny Pawar is astonishing as young Saroo. When he goes missing, the fear and isolation on his face is crushing, and when his kind and trusting nature leads to a little smile, his big bright eyes light up the screen. The strength of his performance makes it a difficult and quite complex role for Dev Patel to pick up halfway through. However, he does an exceptional job, depicting a matured, grown up version but also maintaining a sense of unsettled sadness and a lack of belonging. Nicole Kidman is late to the party but threatens to steal the movie in a couple of crucial scenes, exploring the importance of parenthood. A romantic subplot is implemented through Lucy (Rooney Mara) who Saroo meets at university. Unfortunately, this is not only an example of underusing an amazing actress in Mara, but serves only to distract from the main plot rather than pushing it forward.
Lion marks a triumphant debut feature for Davis, who takes challenging source material and transforms it to the big screen with aplomb. Boosted by Luke Davies’ touching screenplay and Greig Fraser’s exquisite cinematography, the film packs a hugely emotional punch. It’s not without its flaws and does sag slightly in the middle when the story becomes muddled, but the central performances offer more than enough to pick it up from the slump. Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman impressively refrain from overdoing the sentimentality, delivering knockout performances, and of course, young Sunny Pawar is a joy to behold.