Collin's been a movie critic since 2009. In real life he works in marketing and is also a novelist ("Good Riddance" published in Oct 2015).
Five years old and a thousand miles from home in an Indian province of people who don’t speak the same language (not that five-year-olds have much of a command of language anyway). That’s the beyond-dire situation young boy Saroo finds himself in. And it’s what pulls you into Garth Davis’ Lion with a ferocious tenacity.
What must be going through his head? What about the brother, sister, and mother who now have absolutely no clue of his whereabouts?
If it weren’t a true story (based on Saroo’s own memoir A Long Way Home), this would be too unbelievable even for Hollywood. But it is true, and in Davis’ capable hands the film version becomes one of the true must-see movies of the past year.
Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) spend their days scavenging and begging at train stations. When one day Guddu decides to try a bigger station several towns away, Saroo begs to go along. His brother gives in, and though exhausted from the journey, Saroo simply wants to sleep once they get there. Guddu tells his brother to remain on a bench until he gets back, but when Saroo wakes up, Guddu still hasn’t returned. The young boy looks in an abandoned train parked nearby and, after not finding his brother, again nods off. When he wakes he is trapped on the now-moving, empty train as it steams toward Calcutta, a thousand miles away from home.
After more than a year of living on the streets, Saroo eventually finds himself in an orphanage, and from there is adopted by the Brierleys, an Australian couple played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham.
Lion then fast-forwards 25 years to when Saroo (Dev Patel) is a grown man, starting a career and falling in love, yet still unable to completely shake the ghosts and memories of the night he got lost. Fortunately those memories are still vivid, and with the assistance of Google Earth (Ah, technology!) he sets about the Herculean task of trying to find his home.
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The screenplay by Luke Davies is beautiful in its paucity; much of the first hour is largely void of dialogue, save for Saroo’s frequent shouts for his brother. Newcomer Pawar, however, has more than enough talent and expression to carry the film, and cinematographer Greig Fraser (who served the same duty with gusto on Rogue One) brilliantly lets us see the world through Saroo’s eyes. When the train arrives in Calcutta, the camera rarely rises above the five-year-old’s eye level, making us even more aware of the jungle of people that swarm around him. Dustin O’Halloran’s ethereal score also deserves praise for setting the right mood throughout, without ever getting in the way.
As Lion transitions to the second half, the jump is a bit jarring at first, but in retrospect there isn't really a better way to do it. And the emotional heft doesn’t waver at all; it may, in fact, ramp up a bit, as we fully grasp the loss that Saroo still feels decades later.
Along with Pawar (who joins The Jungle Book’s Neel Sethi in the rare air of 2016’s best performances by a child) the cast of Lion turns in utterly gripping work. Patel, who is best known for rather frothy performances in Slumdog Millionaire and the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, proves his chops here, and Kidman shakes off her recent handful of duds to remind us of her ability to turn in riveting, heartbreaking work.
With all the awards-season fodder currently playing, it would be easy to overlook Lion, but if you’re looking for a supremely heartfelt and ultimately uplifting film, don’t make that mistake. It’s a true original, almost perfectly executed and entirely worth experiencing on every level. It’s a story destined to stick with you long after, and well it should.