By Jack Dignan
True stories can be fascinating things, especially when translated to film. Will they work? Will they seem believable? Is the audience going to understand the events taking place or is it going to pull a ‘Masterminds’ and turn into some incoherent, unwatchable mumbo jumbo? Thankfully, Lion does not. It’s a film so real and unexpected that there’s no way it wasn’t a true story. This couldn’t be a work of fiction, and the story it’s based upon is a remarkable one. I was fortunate enough to watch this film last month at the film’s Australian Premiere, and after the film had concluded the cast, crew and some of the real people behind the film came out on stage, and it was just surreal to hear what they had to say about this remarkable story.
Lion, essentially, is split into two stories. The first half, or perhaps a little less than half, focuses on a young boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar). When out late at night with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), Saroo accidentally falls asleep on a train, waking up thousands of kilometers away from his home. We follow his story as he makes his way into adoption, allowing us to catch up years later with an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) living in Australia with adoptive parents, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). After memories are sparked of his long-lost childhood, it’s Saroo’s ambition to find his original family, using the newly released Google Earth to assist in finding his way back home.
Spending forty or so minutes focused in on a five-year-old actor speaking in a foreign language is a bold move for a film being sold to the mainstream. It’s not the type of thing most people would expect, myself included, and I’m sure the studio would’ve had some things to say about it. Yet it ends up being the best part of the movie. The young actor, who plays a young Saroo, Sunny Pawar, is phenomenal. The kid has never acted before in his life, nor even seen a movie before, and here he is, delivering the best performance in the whole film. Lion was the first movie he’s ever seen, and I’m sure it’ll kick off a love affair with cinema, as well as a soon-to-be iconic career in acting.
It’s his childhood story that’s traumatic, emotionally stirring and perfectly executed. This is a film that spends just as much time focused on getting lost as it does on getting found. It’s daring and ambitious, breaking away from the norm to provide a spellbinding movie experience. The story of a younger Saroo has a nice flow to it, directed stupendously and written at a swift, enjoyable pace. It’s gripping. Truly. There’s never a moment that doesn’t propel the story forward, and his initial meeting with his adoptive parents makes for a touching, well earned moment, perfectly conflicting with the meeting of his adoptive brother a number of years later.
In fact, the story of this young child lost with nowhere to go would make for a fascinating enough film in its own right. But the story doesn’t end there, and I’m thankful for that. We catch up later with an adult Saroo, Dev Patel now taking on the role to wonderful results. However, this is where the story starts to feel a little bit clunky, none of the components falling into place exactly where they should, although they fall close enough to work. The story has a lot more to cover, condensed down into an appealing runtime, and so some of the jumping around can be forgiven due to the nature of this story. This wasn’t just some overnight event, and the film does a good job at showcasing this. It’s a journey, and this fact is made clear.
There’s a lot to catch up on, including Saroo’s newfound relationship to Lucy, played by one of my favourite young actresses working right now, Rooney Mara. Fresh off of Carol, she once again delivers a brilliant performance, even if her character is sidelined and occasionally feels more like an accessory to allow for a single moment to take place. With the exception of that one scene, there’s not a lot that she gets to do, especially in the third act. I’m not saying I wanted this film to be the Rooney Mara show, as her character isn’t integral to the plot, but that’s the problem. They spend a lot of time building her up, only to forget to use her. Still, the scenes she’s in work, and I’m thankful she got involved with a project as impressive as this one.
Also excellent are Saroo’s parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Whenham. Kidman is always striking, her performances consistently on a whole other level. She’s a talent actress, there’s no denying that, and she’s great as Saroo’s adoptive mother, playing an emotional role in the film’s third act. It’s this third act that’s satisfying, emotional, uplifting and depressing all at the same time. A lot of the film plays out with few surprises, mainly because of how well advertised the true story is (so, no faulting the film itself here), but it’s this finale that still manages to pack the biggest punch. This is not a film where the narrative is full of surprises. Knowing the outcome won’t ruin the film, as it’s a movie about the experience. It’s a film that thrives on the journey.
To sum up, Lion gets off to a tremendous start, featuring a foreign language opening that’s rich with emotion and full of story. The narrative that follows is an unexpected, moving and tear-worthy journey full of excellent performances and a finale that will touch your soul.
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