Based on the book A Long Way Home by the real-life protagonist Saroo Brierley, Lion follows an Indian boy who gets lost from his mother, sister and brother and is subsequently adopted by an Australian couple.
Young Saroo is brilliantly played by newcomer Sunny Pawar, who with his puppy-dog eyes has the audience cooing from the beginning. Saroo’s incredible journey begins when he is left by his older brother Guddu at a train station to sleep. In the search for his brother Saroo hops onto a stationary train carriage and soon falls into a slumber. He awakes in horror to find it is now morning and the train is moving. Unable to get out of the locked carriage, Saroo is transported 1600km from his home town to Howrah railway station in Kolkata.
Although fast-forwarded in the film, this part of Saroo’s journey in Kolkata is debatably the most remarkable. Five years old, with no money and unable to speak Bengali, Saroo miraculously survives three weeks on his own before a teenager notices him on the street. Upon finding Saroo speaks Hindi the teenager takes him to the local police where he is sent to an orphanage, where he is then adopted out to an Australian couple Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Readers of the novel will certainly notice a few discrepancies, particularly how Saroo ends up lost, but overall the story stays close to the original tale. Saroo’s mission to find his birth place begins to envelop him in adulthood so he spends four years painstakingly following train tracks using Google earth until he recognises a station from his childhood memories.
Kidman’s performance as Saroo’s mother is incredibly powerful and Dev Patel replaces the young Sunny Pawar as the film jumps forward 25 years. The chemistry between Kidman and Patel carries the film during a segment where the story stagnates as background relationships between Saroo, his adopted brother and American love interest (Rooney Mara) are introduced with diminutive outcome.
Director Garth Davis, who New Zealanders may know as the director of Top of the Lake, dazzles audiences in his feature debut with breath-taking scenery from the Madhya Pradesh region, India, where Saroo is born, and Hobart, Tasmania where he is raised. Davis is able to contrast the slums of Madhya Pradesh and the affluence of Hobart seamlessly, emphasising how different Saroo’s upbringing in India compares to Australia.
Equipped with a brilliant cast, the luck and charm of Slumdog Millionaire, and the heart-warming feel of Homeward Bound it is unsurprising that it is receiving Oscar interest.
Lion will no doubt be one of the most memorable films of the year. Check out this gem out in NZ cinemas 19 January.
Reviewed by Nick MacDonald.