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The debut feature film from award winning commercial director Garth Davis, Lion tells the moving true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian street child adopted in Australia, and his search for the family he lost. Dev Patel thrives in this serious and emotionally challenging role.
Patel only stars in half of the film - unexpectedly, the first half chronicles Saroo’s experiences as a child, played by outstanding young talent Sunny Pawar. It is these memories of his early years with his family which haunt Saroo all those years later, so it is fundamental to the emotional journey of the film that the audience is as involved with those memories as the character. Saroo’s love for his mother and his admiration for his older brother are so convincingly played that it only takes a few short scenes of them together to convey the enormity of their absence when he is separated from them.
Skilfully shot, the stillness and silence of an empty train station at night makes the tiny Pawar look so painfully small and alone, while the chaotic bustle of the packed train station in Calcutta, thousands of miles from his home, where most people speak a different language, has the same effect. The pumping fear he feels as he runs away from men snatching street kids, the grief and desperation as he cries for his mother, the helplessness and resignation as he realizes nobody has heard of his hometown and he is stuck here - the audience is right there with him on this terrifying journey. The pathos is huge - there wasn’t a dry eye in the house as a kindly police officer asked for his mother’s name so they could try and contact her, and little Saroo with all his five year old wisdom simply replies “Ammi (mum).”
Eventually taken to an orphanage from which he is adopted by an Australian couple, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, we follow Saroo as he travels even further from his home and his family, but gains another home and family in its stead. It is here we jump forward twenty years, and Patel appears, speaking fluent Australian-accented English - a far cry from where Saroo started. The film becomes an interesting discussion on not only cross-cultural adoption, but the wider case of the children of immigrants, brought up in a culture different from their parents’. “I was adopted here, I’m not really Indian,” Saroo tells his Indian foreign student classmates, and although he gained so much by being raised in Australia, there is a grief here at at something lost. Not just his family but his heritage and history, erased in exchange for his comfortable life. There is no condemnation on either side, but simply an acknowledgement of the opportunity cost.
It is at dinner with his Indian friends, where he must be offered a fork like the non-Indians of the party, where he has a vivid sense memory of his brother triggered by jalebis - an Indian dessert. This marks the start of his obsession with finding his blood relatives. Haunted by dreams of his younger self running home to his mother at first, Saroo is soon incapable of going about his daily life without hallucinating his mother, his brother, his home. The landscape of Australia transforms into the cliffs of his hometown while his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) worries for his wellbeing. Through his eyes, we see the landscape of his memories stretching out, and understand that there is no way he can ignore them.
Google Earth, integral to the plot, manages to be fairly unobtrusive in the film. As Saroo systematically checks all the train stations in his search radius, we are bombarded with flashbacks and memories as familiar to us as they are to him. The urgency he feels is entirely mirrored by the audience willing him on, despite how this search has distanced him from his adoptive family and his friends. The one weak point in the whole film comes from Nicole Kidman, though she acted the hell out of what was simply a weird beat in the script - perhaps something important from the autobiographical book it was based on that couldn’t be removed. She tells Saroo of a vision she had as a young girl of “a small brown-skin boy,” and from that moment she knew what her future would hold. Honestly, that put an uncomfortable spin on her seemingly noble cause of giving a home to children who needed one - oddly race specific and almost colonialist in tone, totally out of keeping with the rest of the film.
The climax is bittersweet, and will without a doubt trigger one of the most cathartic cries of your life, guaranteed. I won’t go into any further detail, but make sure you have enough tissues with you! In keeping with the trend of a lot of the true story based films at the BFI London Film Festival this year, at the very end we some some real footage, this time of the real Saroo with his family - cue more tears!
Overall, the first half is more compelling than the second, but through no fault of Patel’s - Pawar is a hard act to follow! The search drags a little, but the end makes it all worth it. An incredibly moving story and a brilliantly made movie. My favorite film of the festival.