Though this film cries for editing, a five-year-old lost in the streets of Calcutta is quite a harrowing adventure to view. The fact that it is a true story makes each scene all the more mesmerizing. Based on the memoir “A Long Way Home”, we are carried across two continents, India and Australia, in following the life path of our lost urchin.
Divided into two parts, “Lion” focuses on the wet-eyed Indian pre-schooler and the twenty-year-old Australian college student in meshing the past with the future. Dev Patel is Saroo, as soulfully lost as his younger self (played hauntingly by Sunny Pawar) is adrift and forsaken. Screenwriter Luke Davies adapts Saroo Brierley’s story of his adoption and his search for his biological family with just enough tension and circumstance. The early scenes are riveting and dream-like at the same time. A five-year-olds’ awareness of danger and the balance of wanting to please is astoundingly captured. That this little boy was not is made more sobering with the final screen numbers: over eighty thousand children go missing every year in India.
Director Garth Davis draws out the best in his actors. Sunny Pawar is mesmerizing. His “I can lift anything” is all boy. Dev Patel as college student, both depressed and in love, draws memories. His friendships are lovely, his respect for past and present made clear and celebrated. It is Guddu (Abhisek Bharate) who will remain in this viewer’s mind. How does a teenager forgive himself for botched responsibility? Or did he not return to his brother’s bench because he was killed by a train that very night ? “Lion” will send filmgoers to the page, like so many good films have done.
Nicole Kidman is so self-possessed as Susan Brierley, Saroo’s adoptive mother, that we forget her stardom. Likewise, David Wenham loses himself in his part as adoptive father. The reality they create as idealistic nurturers is painfully beautiful. Their second adopted son, Mantosh (Kesha Jadhav), helps underscore the many pitfalls damaged children have in adjusting to familiar life. Kidman’s motherly tears of joy and of anguish are high performance art.
The cinematography of the vast beauty of India is seen in overhead, aerial shots. Google maps are given some practical play. Street scenes of threatening dogs, cardboard pallets, and gangs of homeless children running from guards, or worse, temper the picture. My favorite scene was of the kind man eating in the restaurant window. Saroo sits on the curb and mimics his soup spoon rising and falling. Lovely camera work captures a social worker in interview, a crowded orphanage, candles and prayers to Krishna, and the prize of an apple core. Monsoon rains under a bridge and the opening of a refrigerator in Australia catch strong emotions. Flashbacks are smoothly done by association. Memory is all. When we hear the words, “Come with me”, we cheer with the village. This Aussie film is up-lifting and worth our privileged time.