This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 15th January 2017
4.5 stars, Rated PG, 118 mins
Readers who are familiar with the flow of the cinematic seasons will be rubbing their hands with glee as we enter a period traditionally dominated by 4 and 5-star reviews for films that will be turning up on Awards’ shortlists in January and February. (We call it “Oscar season”, but of course the Golden Globes and BAFTAs also make their judgements at this time of year.)
One strong contender is Lion, about an adopted Indian boy who leaves Australia to search for his long-lost family 25 years later. A well-acted true story which tugs at the heartstrings and co-stars Nicole Kidman, it’s very likely Oscar-bait, but that’s not without good cause.
The incredibly moving story sets off at pace, dousing us with an enchanting soundtrack and spectacular photography as we follow the doe-eyed Saroo (the first acting role for tiny Sunny Pawar, who is absolutely captivating) as he unintentionally boards a passengerless train and is whisked away far from his mother and brother, to bustling Calcutta. Unable to establish where he has come from, Saroo is shuttled from one inadequate situation to the next, encountering shady characters both in and outside the welfare system. It’s an engrossing first act, thanks to the film’s deeply authentic use of local places and people and the desperate storyline which finds relief only when Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple (played with compassion and considerable restraint by Kidman and David Wenham) and takes up a new life thousands of miles from home.
25 years later, older Saroo (now played by Best Exotic Marigold’s Dev Patel) is living an Aussie life devoid of anything which relates to his cultural heritage, when he is prompted to try to retrace his 5-year old steps. Using Google Earth and a fallible memory, his ensuing quest occasionally loses narrative momentum, but since Lion already stole our heart in Act One, we are nonetheless gripped.
The whole thing may sound horrendously saccharine, but Australian director Garth Davis’ first feature is a stunning combination of smart writing (based on the real Saroo’s memoir), perfectly-pitched performances and brilliant use of his locations. While Pawar is a revelation, Kidman is also to be applauded for conveying the nuanced emotions of an adoptive mum while respecting her position as a supporting character in someone else’s film. Even so, she has moments which break your heart. The charismatic Patel does a fine Aussie accent, and Divian Ladwa (a little-known Jack of many filmmaking trades) is excellent as the wayward brother.
Lion is the sort of film you could easily go into feeling cynical, but every aspect of its production, from heart wrenching story to exotic spectacle, makes it a worthy adversary to its fellow nominees.