FILM REVIEW of Lion by Don Perlgut — When the history of Australian film of the early 21st century is written, Lion will take its place as one of the best of its era. While its story of childhood loss, displacement, the search for identity and ultimate redemption is universal, it is also thoroughly Australian.
And it’s based on a true story – Saroo Brierley becomes separated from his family in India at the age of five and is adopted by an Australia couple who live in Hobart.
Some 25 years later, he discovers the potential of Google Earth.
After months of scouring satellite photos, he recognises his hometown, leading him to a reunion with his birth family.
The first half of Lion takes place in India, with young Sunny Pawar playing the role of Saroo, and Abhishek Bharate playing his older brother Guddu.
One fateful day Guddu takes young Saroo on one of his many train expeditions in search of things to sell, and Saroo becomes too tired and is left to sleep at a train station.
Upon waking up in the night, he searches for his brother and gets trapped in an empty train that travels for days – and almost 1500 kilometres – from Saroo’s home in regional Khandwa to Kolkata (Calcutta).
For weeks, Saroo wanders the streets, unable to speak the local language Bengali (his native tongue is Hindi) and avoids the fate of many homeless young people who are ruthlessly trafficked by unscrupulous adults.
He winds up in an orphanage that is truly Dickensian, filled with screaming kids presided over by uncaring adults. Too young even to remember his last name, his attempts to find his mother and family fail.
The first part of this film is powerful viewing, presented from young Saroo’s standpoint without dialogue.
The media attention has focused on the “name” stars – Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire), who plays the 30-year-old Saroo, and Nicole Kidman as his adoptive mother Sue Brierley. They both received Golden Globe nominations, along with David Wenham as adoptive father John Brierley.
But the emotional strength of Lion comes from the performance of Sunny Pawar as the young hero. Like the best of child actors, he brings a stillness and focus to the role that astonishes, illustrating just the ordeal that many young Australian migrants have experienced prior to their arrival here.
The second half of the film focuses on the emotional journey of Saroo (played by Patel) as he slowly works through his traumatic separation. Patel inhabits his character perfectly, with a great Australian accent and a cool swagger that only just hides the emotional insecurity he still feels at the early loss of his biological family.
American actress Rooney Mara (Carol, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) plays Saroo’s girlfriend, and Divian Ladwa plays Mantosh Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive brother who suffers from psychological demons much greater than Saroo’s.
Although the second half of the film does not achieve the same heights as the first part, hampered by Saroo’s internalised story, the acting and the settings (Hobart and Melbourne) ground the film in the reality of the present day, setting up Lion for the emotional pay-off as Saroo finds his family and learns new things about himself at the same time.
Despite the amazing “needle in a haystack” story, credit must go to the production team of Sydney Jewish producer Emile Sherman (Oscar winner for The King’s Speech) and his partners Iain Canning and Angie Fielder, director Garth Davis who brings a stunning visual style, and scriptwriter Luke Davis who fashioned Saroo’s biographical book into a screen story that rings true emotionally. .