Lion is a powerful, tear-jerking examination of identity with leads Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel doing excellent work.
Harrow-born Dev Patel is the top-billed player in this Australian/American co-production, and he’s beautifully restrained and affects just the right light Tasmanian accent. Yet the star of the first half of director Garth Davis’ factual drama is unknown Sunny Pawar, who only just turned 8, was chosen from 4000 hopefuls and holds the whole first half of the movie together. He’s remarkably natural and heart-rendingly real, and offers one of the best child performances in years in a very demanding role.
Drawn from Saroo Brierly’s memoir A Long Way Home and Luke Davies’ adapted screenplay, this has Pawar’s Saroo as a five year old living in a small village in Khandwa in 1986, and early scenes find him stealing coal from a moving train with his big brother Guddu (Abhisek Bharate) to sell for food for his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) and little sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki).
Saroo longs to go out at night for more risky work with Guddu, but when he does, a series of fatalistic circumstances lead to him becoming trapped on a decommissioned train, which takes him 1600km away to Calcutta, a chaotic and frightening place captured realistically (and rather unflatteringly) by director Davis.
After months wandering and a stint in an orphanage where terrible things are hinted at (but not quite shown), Saroo is eventually adopted by a kind couple in Hobart, Sue and John (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham trying to look young and ‘80s at first), and he grows to love them.
When we then flash-forward 20 years to Saroo (now played by Patel) he’s shown to be moving to Melbourne to study, and yet a surprise romance with Lucy (Rooney Mara, fine in a vaguely thankless part), his troubled relationship with the Brierly family’s other adopted son Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav as a child, Divian Ladwa as an adult) and other factors lead to his lengthy quest to find the home he once knew. And the family he can’t forget.
Although the second half stumbles somewhat in flashing back and forth (plus Lucy and Mantosh tend to disappear too conveniently), it hardly matters, as this is powerfully moving anyway, with Pawar and Patel perfectly matched and both allowed to be silent for long stretches, as nothing need be said in the most intense and emotional scenes here.
Rated PG. Lion is in cinemas now.