Based on one remarkable real-life story, “Lion” tries to tug at our heartstrings, and it succeeds with several powerful moments during its first half. Although it stumbles a bit during the second half which is more conventional in comparison, the movie remains engaging to watch thanks to the lasting emotional resonance of its first half, and we cannot help but moved as it eventually arrives at the expected but undeniably poignant end of its hero’s long journey.
Set in 1986, the first half of the movie depicts how Saroo (Sunny Pawar) comes to be separated from his family. He is a little 5-year-old boy living in a rural region of Khandwa, India, and the opening scene shows him and his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) stealing coal from a moving freight train. They later exchange their stolen coal with two packets of milk, and these are barely enough for their poor family living in a slum neighborhood.
When Guddu is about to go to a distant place for getting any chance to earn more money, Saroo insists that he should go along with Guddu. They take a train together as night begins, but then Saroo has become too drowsy to go around with his brother when the train arrives at a station. Guddu has no choice but to leave his sleepy brother on a bench in the station, and Saroo later finds himself alone in the empty station while his brother has not returned yet.
Looking for his brother, Saroo happens to go inside a train stopping in the station, and that turns out to be a serious mistake. When he wakes up in that train in the next morning, the train is rapidly running to somewhere along its railroad as he is trapped inside it. When he finally can get out of the train after it arrives in Calcutta (it is called Kolkata at present, by the way), he is around 1600 km from his hometown, and he even cannot ask for help mainly because he cannot speak Bengali.
As his desperate situation is continued on the streets and alleys of Calcutta, the movie gives us a number of Dickensian moments peppered with gritty realism. At one point, Saroo comes across a woman who can speak Hindi, and she shows him the kindness of stranger at first, but then it turns out that she and her associate have a sinister intention which is disturbingly implied to us during their scene. After managing to run away from them, he gets real help from a young man who kindly takes him to a police station, but then he is eventually sent to a big, shabby orphanage where he indirectly witnesses a horrific case of child abuse along with many other kids during one night.
Fortunately, Saroo is later adopted by an upper middle-class couple living in Hobart, Australia, and we see the gradual process of his adaptation to a new environment. John and Sue Brierley, played by David Wenham and Nicole Kidman with genuine warmness, are ready to welcome him into their cozy household, and it does not take much time for Saroo to get closer to his new parents. Around the time when John and Sue come to adopt another Indian kid, Saroo looks happy and well-adjusted, and the bond between him and Sue is palpable during one private moment between them.
The movie moves forward to 2007 at the beginning of its second half, and Saroo, who is played by Dev Patel from this point, now becomes a lad with the promising future ahead of him. He is going to study hotel management in Melbourne, and his adoptive parents are proud of their son. While he is studying in Melbourne, he befriends several Indian students attending his class, and he also begins a relationship with a young woman named Lucy (Rooney Mara).
When he is at a house party held by his Indian friends, a moment equivalent to that famous madeleine cake moment in Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” occurs to him, and he soon finds himself overwhelmed by the sudden recollection of what he has forgotten for years since his adoption. He can only remember vaguely how his hometown looked, but, thanks to the considerable advance of contemporary technology, finding his hometown seems actually possible. Via the calculations based on the speed of trains in the 1980s, he estimates the distance between Calcutta and his hometown, and he also searches through Google Earth for finding any landscape he may recognize.
As he becomes more obsessed with finding his hometown and biological family, he becomes more distant from his girlfriend as well as his adoptive parents. The adapted screenplay by Luke Davis, which is based on “A Long Way Home” written by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose, is contrived especially during this part, and Rooney Mara is rather wasted in her underdeveloped role. The depiction of her character’s relationship with Saroo is not convincing enough to engage me, and it is also disappointing that the movie does not pay more attention to Saroo’s troubled adoptive brother, a damaged man still struggling with whatever he experienced during his childhood years in India.
While Patel and Kidman were recently Oscar-nominated for their respective earnest performances, the best performance in the film comes from young newcomer Sunny Pawar. The director Garth Davis wisely lets Pawar’s unadorned acting carry the first half of his movie, and Pawar’s effortless performance reminds me again of how child performers always surprise us. Sure, they certainly need good directors who can handle them well, but they never fail to amaze us with the simplicity and directness of their performance.
Although it is riddled with flaws at times, “Lion” still works because of its sincere human drama and several touching performances. It is certainly as sentimental as you can expect, but its heart is in right place, and it surely earns all the emotions unfolded during its dramatic finale which reveals one small but important thing associated with its title in the end. I could see through it from the start, but it did its job fairly well, so I will not complain.