Half Dickensian epic, half heart-wrenching domestic drama, “Lion” tells a real-life story so unlikely that it stretches credulity.
But it happened.
In 1986 five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawer, in one of the most astonishing performances by a young child ever captured on film) was living with his widowed mother and two siblings in a rural area of central India. His mother worked as a laborer (she literally lifted rocks all day); Saroo and an older brother stole lumps of coal from passing trains, trading them for food.
On one nighttime outing, Saroo was separated from his brother and found himself locked inside an empty passenger train being driven more than 1,000 miles to Calcutta to be decommissioned.
Little Saroo didn’t know his family’s last name or the town he hailed from. Worse, he spoke only Hindi, while the Calcuttans spoke Bengali.
For months the child lived on the street — begging, stealing, avoiding capture by criminals seeking child prostitutes. After several close calls Saroo found himself in an orphanage where, miraculously enough, he was paired with an Australian couple, John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman).
Relocated to middle-class comfort in Tasmania, the lost boy seemed to have washed up in paradise. Not even the addition to the family of his troubled adopted brother, Mantosh — like Saroo an Indian orphan but with severe emotional and social issues — could seriously erode the fairy-tale quality of Saroo’s good fortune.
(By the way, John and Sue seem pretty good candidates for sainthood.)
Twenty years later Saroo, now portrayed by Dev Patel, is a 100 percent assimilated Aussie, living in Melbourne and studying international hotel management. He’s got a smart, pretty girlfriend (Rooney Mara in a role that feels like a screenwriter’s invention).
But he’s starting to wonder about his original family. And over months he becomes obsessed with a project to find them, using the newly developed Google Earth to examine all the rural railway stations within a two-day train ride of Calcutta. He’s hoping to spot in the overhead view a distinctive water tower he recalls from the night he became lost.
So driven is Saroo in this seemingly impossible quest he threatens to alienate his girl. Moreover, he feels guilty that by seeking his birth mother he may be betraying the love of his adopted family.
And then there’s brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), a sometimes drug addict who lives like a hermit in a forest cabin and cannot control the unhappiness he brings to his parents.
Little by little, Saroo finds himself coming closer to realizing his goal. Get out your hankies.
Luke Davies’ screenplay (adapted from Saroo Bierley’s book A Long Way Home) and the direction by Garth Davis (a veteran of TV commercials) offer almost two distinct films.
Saroo’s Indian boyhood is captured with a combination of documentary-style footage (lots of handheld camera work) and pure visual poetry. . . it becomes clear that we are seeing the world as a wondrous place through a child’s eyes, and the memory of that blessedly innocent time is largely what sets the adult Saroo on his seemingly impossible mission.
The adult Saroo resides in a materially stable world, but one beset by family issues triggered by the unhappy Mantosh. Nevertheless, his parents are superhumanly loving, giving and supportive. Kidman has an extraordinarily moving scene in which she explains that she and her husband were always capable of having their own children. . . but that they agreed they could do more for the world by taking in a couple of lost boys.
We should all be so lucky.