Though many will doubtless be tempted to take one look at this adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s fascinating memoir and dismiss it as glib, awards-hungry Oscar-bait, thanks to the combined efforts of director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake), scribe Luke Davies (Candy, Life) and a never-better Dev Patel, Lion wrings potent emotion out of a deceptively universal story.
At just five years old, young Saroo became separated from his family in India and ended up adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). Some 25 years later, an adult Saroo (Patel) attempts to use Google Earth to locate his hometown and track down his family.
By far the most striking initial aspect of Davis’ film is his brave decision not to feature Patel, Kidman or any of the movie’s other recognisable faces in the entire first half of the movie. Instead, Davis trusts young Sunny Pawar to command the screen as the child version of Saroo. Davis dares to take his time immersing the audience in Saroo’s early life rather than nonchalantly pigeonholing the flashbacks amid the more current story to help break things up. It’s immensely refreshing and certainly makes the film feel less geared towards winning Oscars (because, to be cynical, certain Academy voters might get itchy feet waiting for the Hollywood lot).
Comparisons to Danny Boyle’s Best Picture-winning Slumdog Millionaire are meanwhile inevitable albeit rather dubious; there are no allusions to fate or destiny here, rather a more grounded, practical look at one man’s desperate desire to reconnect with his decades-estranged family. There are no points awarded for guessing how it all ends up – not to mention the inherent tackiness of discussing real world turmoil in terms of “spoilers” – but the journey mostly hits the right emotional markers throughout, even with some fat that could certainly be trimmed (specifically a fairly anodyne romance with Rooney Mara’s Lucy).
It’s the performances that really elevate this one for the most part; Patel, for possibly the first time in his career, sheds the boyishness that has largely kept him cloistered in a specific confine of roles, and here looks like an actual adult male (the gym membership and facial hair fit him like a glove). He gives a complex performance that encompasses emotions at war; sadness, anger, frustration and guilt, making him perhaps not the most personable of protagonists, but a good deal more believable and interesting.
The supporting cast is also rock solid; Mara is fine despite the perfunctoriness of her part, Kidman and Wenham are delightful as the extremely warm, understanding parents who only wish the best for their adopted son, and of course, the child Saroo, Pawar, has to largely carry the first act of the movie by himself, which is no mean feat for such a young actor.
While it doesn’t quite reach the emotional zenith its heartfelt true story allows, Lion nevertheless mines considerable pathos out of one young man’s search for identity, agency and family. If the London Film Festival’s press screening was any indication, it’s going to leave cinemas around the world soaking wet. Bring tissues.
Lion is in US cinemas November 25th