Directed by Garth Davis.
Starring: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham and Sunny Pawar
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Review by Tom Cooney
Lion is a film with a story so extraordinary, I would think it too farfetched – that is, if it wasn’t actually true. Based on the memoir of Saroo Brierley, Lion covers his incredible, continent-spanning story. Separated from his family at the age of five in 1980s India, we trace Saroo’s journey from being that child – lost in an alien environment – to his life as an adult, 25 years later. Heart-breaking and heart-warming in equal measure, director Garth Davis’ debut feature electrifies its audience with an emotional current that reflects the care and compassion of the people bringing this film to life.
One of the most interesting and unique aspects of Lion is its unconventional storytelling structure. The film is effectively split into two halves: the first following Saroo as a child in India, the second jumping ahead to his adult life in Australia. Screenwriter Luke Davies’ decision to have such a split, as opposed to opting for a more traditional format – such as the inclusion of flashback sequences, for example – was a risky one. This is because the entire first section of Lion is carried on the shoulders of Sunny Pawar, playing young Saroo in his first ever onscreen appearance. However, this was a risk worth taking; Pawar is an absolute revelation. The eight-year-old gives a performance so believable, arresting and subtle that this section of the film is enthralling in its profoundly tragic way.
It is when Lion enters its second stage, and a whole host of new elements are introduced into the story, that the film loses some of its focus. Trying to balance Saroo’s relationship with his girlfriend and his adoptive family, as well as illustrating the search for his own identity, is an overwhelming task for the filmmakers. As a result, none of these subplots feel as fleshed out as they could have been. It is when Lion decides to hone in on the latter – Saroo’s search for the family he once lost, and the emotional strain this has on Dev Patel’s portrayal of the man – that the potential garnered in its first act is finally fulfilled. Saroo’s tireless search is skilfully played by Patel, with the rest of Lion’s all-star cast also delivering consistently impressive performances. Nicole Kidman – as Saroo’s adoptive mother – particularly shines here, reaching an emotional level that I haven’t seen from her in a long time.
As the film’s finale approaches, it becomes a struggle to stifle those tears – and when we do reach its closing moments, the emotional payoff is epically cathartic. Loss, family and identity are themes explored through Saroo’s story, and while Garth Davis’ film specifically focuses on one man, the topics explored are relatable on a universal human level. That is what makes Lion such a special film.