A five-year-old Indian boy gets lost on the streets of Calcutta, thousands of kilometers from home. He survives many challenges before being adopted by a couple in Australia; 25 years later, he sets out to find his lost family.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: “You’ll have a nice home. Australia is a nice place.” These words, spoken by a young girl in a Calcutta orphanage, are meant to comfort Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a little boy who despite having a family finds himself counted among India’s orphans. The sentiment is bland but sincere: “nice” would describe little of Saroo’s existence in the northwest of India, where he was loved but desperately poor, and nothing of his accidental journey to Calcutta. With no one to claim him, Saroo is put on the adoption market, and lands with a nice family in nice Hobart, Tasmania.
The first section of Lion, Garth Davies’s richly produced but somewhat inert adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s memoir, 'A Long Way Home', traces Saroo’s unlikely path to Australia. Saroo is separated from his older brother at a train station, and is eventually carried 1600km from home on a train. Lion presents much of what follows as a matter of chance, while at the same time suggesting the indifference a complex and teeming society shows its most vulnerable members.
Pawar’s enchanting presence, open yet canny, carries the first portion of the film. Scenes shot on location in India (by cinematographer Greig Fraser) are epic in scope, but beyond striking imagery and an impressionistic score, too little story takes shape. Throughout Lion, Davies stretches relatively minor plot components (a boy gets lost, a boy is found; a grown man searches for his family using Google Earth) into extended set pieces, and the film begins to bloat as a result. Most involving of the sequences that make up Lion’s first section is five-year-old Saroo’s encounter with an unusually friendly adult – one that ends when his instincts send him tearing out of her apartment, heading anywhere, away, as fast as he can.
Months and then years pass; Saroo manages to stay relatively safe. The intervention of a second stranger lands him in that orphanage. A foreigner in Calcutta (where Bengali, not Hindi, is the local language), Saroo is unable to identify his hometown or his mother, who is illiterate and survives moving rocks as a laborer. It is a matter of both good fortune and some ambivalence that Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham) of Hobart, Tasmania agree to adopt Saroo. The terms of the adoption are unclear (the film begins in the mid 1980s), and Lion is uninterested in pursuing them. Sue and John are presented simply as eager, ideal, extremely white parents, who treat Saroo as an extraordinary gift.
The couple later adopts a second Indian child, who exhibits far more damage than their adorable first. Mantosh tests Sue and John; that we learn nothing of this child’s background, the way it differs from that of Saroo (or doesn’t) suggests the will to nuance lacking in Luke Davies’s script. Lion seems to want credit for tackling a complex story but shies from the trouble of actually telling one.
This avoidance becomes clear once the film jumps ahead 20 years, and we find Saroo (Dev Patel) a content, assimilated Australian – one who downplays his origins in mixed company and roots for the Aussies, mate, in every cricket match. At school, Saroo meets Lucy (Rooney Mara), a love interest who adds little to the story. Lucy – pretty, American, white – seems to represent the privilege to which Saroo is now accustomed, a life of comfort, of walking into underground raves like they do in the movies, of wearing the right trainers.
"Kidman is revelatory in her small but surprisingly dimensional turn."
When one of his classmates is playing with Google Earth, Saroo begins a long and existential search for his homeland. Though he loves his adoptive parents, Saroo is haunted by the home and family he can only recall in dream-like fragments. Patel is capable in a repetitive and oddly underwritten role, but Kidman is revelatory in her small but surprisingly dimensional turn. Viewers may regard Sue with the skepticism Lion acknowledges but doesn’t share. Kidman plays Sue’s longing and motherly denial (the adult Mantosh is self-destructive and solitary, despite her best efforts) with the stoicism of someone used to being underestimated. She is stunning in a scene in which she reveals the story behind her choice to adopt, her choice to love her sons, which she describes as no choice at all.
Lion doesn’t make much – or nearly enough – of the role of chance and fate in shaping a life, lingering instead on long scenes of Saroo moving his laptop cursor over Google Earth images of homogeneous topography. It’s a shame, since ideas are what would have enlarged with story the extraordinary situation the film describes.