Lion is an Australian production based upon Saroo Brierley’s memoir ‘A Long Way Home’. Directed by relative newcomer Garth Davis and written for the screen by Luke Davies (Candy), the film has strong footing in both Australia and India, but was produced by Aussie filmmakers. Based on true events, Lion follows Saroo (Sunny Pawar) as a child, separated from his mother, brother and sister due to unlucky circumstances. He is adopted by a Tasmanian family, growing up with his second adopted brother. When Saroo (Dev Patel) reaches adulthood, he yearns to seek out his biological mother and family.
The first half of Lion follows the formative years of his childhood in India. The imagery is marvellous, employing strong visual storytelling to convey the manifestation of Saroo’s memories. This sense of place and identity is snatched away when Saroo accidently boards a train taking him 1600 miles from his village, replaced with an ever-present sense of danger. During the child’s search for home in Calcutta, we experience with him many dangerous crossroads, from the prospect of living on the street to being sold into the child sex trade. Saroo’s resourcefulness and awareness for danger allows him to persevere, eventually finding a place in an overstuffed orphanage. There is an unspoken meta-discussion about the roles and treatment of children which continues after Saroo is adopted in Australia, working to juxtapose the many roles which Saroo managed to avoid. In my opinion, this discussion and representation is the strongest element of Lion.
Although we do not see Saroo grow up, we get the sense that he was raised apart from his heritage, along with his significantly more troubled adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Madwar). His memories flood back through connecting with fellow international students and the encouragement of his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara). The second half of Lion, which takes place in Tasmania and Melbourne, really drags, with many unnecessary scenes aiming to contrast and emphasize Saroo’s need to find his heritage. I truly believe that although the Lucy character was probably based on a real, present person, that she was brought into the supporting cast to bring Rooney Mara’s star power and bulk up the female character list. Her character is a story device with the purpose of affirming Saroo’s identity, a film trope far too tired for a narrative as complex as Lion. However, with the second half filmed mostly in Melbourne, it is absolutely delightful seeing our streets, trams and Southland (yes, Southland) as major settings.
The single element which matches Lion’s story is its performances. Nicole Kidman was honestly meant to play the role of Sue. She is completely raw and entirely believable, obviously bringing her own emotional experience to the part. Dev Patel is wonderful as Saroo, although I didn’t quite buy is Aussie accent (Americans however, will). Additionally, if there were a single ‘best hair performance’ award, Dev’s hair would win it hands down. Lastly, Sunny Pawar is fantastic as little Saroo. It is impossible to not want to hug him throughout his performance.
It is clear that the Lion’s first half was a lovely piece of filmmaking, although perhaps tried to say a bit too much about too many things. The second half was far too long-winded almost as if they tried to unpack too many elements and still didn’t have enough time at the two-hour mark. In the end, Lion’s true story and real emotion pulls it through as a truly touching drama with brilliant performances. You will sob.
It is very likely that Lion will be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, with supplementary nominations for Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel. This film will do wonders for our film industry.
I can’t wait to see Dev Patel’s magnificent hair in its follow-up performance.
Lion is in cinemas from January 19, 2017.