A modern society that thrives on immediacy and connectivity, we can so often take the technological advancements we’ve grown accustomed to for granted. The well-renowned social networks of Facebook and Twitter, the video chat applications of FaceTime and Skype significantly aiding us in remaining in regular contact with our fellow friends and family, wherever we may be based in the wider world. In the year 1986, the mere idea of an emotionally tortured man looking to be reunited with his nearest and dearest, potentially achieved by the wonder of Google Earth? A concept that would be tough to compute. But for one Saroo Brierley, it’s this astonishing true-life story that powers this adaptation of his book ‘A Long Way Home’.
Carrying the emotional weight of the film’s considered narrative on his slight, untested shoulders, newcomer Sunny Pawar as five-year old Saroo is tasked with navigating us through the film’s engaging opening stages. Immersed in a bustling India, himself and his mischevious brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) are looking to tap into every resource available to aid the fortunes and well-being of their doting mother.
Sadly, such worthy endeavors leave the siblings separated and miles apart, with Saroo left isolated in the unfamiliar confines of Calcutta. Hindered by the language barrier with his inability to speak Bengali and traumatised by the questionable motives of the people he encounters along the way, it ultimately leads him into the loving arms of Nicole Kidman and David Wenham’s Sue and John Brierley.
An Australian couple who immediately express their adoration for Saroo and adopt him to build a new life in Tasmania, it’s here we see Dev Patel’s older incarnation of our central figure enter proceedings. His career aspirations in hotel management (Dame Maggie Smith’s Mrs Donnelly from the Best Exotic Marigold providing a reference?) coupled with his blossoming relationship with Rooney Mara’s Lucy, they are severely put to the test as he remains haunted by his past.
The consistently beautiful aerial shots of his vast birth country, perhaps deliberately mirroring the format of the software that aided our main character’s plight. The fear and sense of isolation experienced accentuated by immaculate long-shots as its sequences in Australia are often tightly constructed and framed, as Saroo’s past and present blur into each other, emphasising the lack of clarity of his true identity and upbringing.
Whilst tied by the conventions of its familiar plot structure, Garth Davis in his big-screen directorial debut visually conveys the heartache and sheer power of Saroo’s story in sincere fashion, often conjuring up a sense of majesty in the most dire of situations, particularly in its well-judged and affecting first hour.
In its dramatic switch of settings, Lion does occasionally leave you craving a greater depth and complexity to the character dynamics it establishes and the subject matter it tackles in the second half. The fascinating hardships with Divian Ladwa’s Mantosh Brierley particularly as we’re teased a contrasting and compelling counter-argument into the potential pitfalls of adoption, the film seemingly expresses a reluctance to steer too far from its crowd-pleasing trajectory.
Yet such creative decisions do little to diminish the lasting impact of its terrific performances. Expressing radiance and restraint, Nicole Kidman is spellbinding as Saroo’s foster mother encapsulated by a stunning ‘vision’ sequence as she wrestles with his admissions. Despite being served a role that is slightly underwritten, the brutally brilliant honesty that Rooney Mara brings to love interest Sue proves effective. But it’s the remarkable, naturalistic turn of debutant Sunny Pawar who will steal audience member’s hearts within moments and a stellar career-best showing from Dev Patel as he captures the pain and anguish of Saroo, that truly impress.
Lion is a truly tender and beautifully crafted tale handled with care, complete with a poignant finale that will likely leave you emotionally exhausted.
Lion is out in cinemas now.