2016 BFI London Film Festival Review: ‘Lion’

October 17, 2016 Updated: October 17, 2016

True stories don’t come more remarkable than that of Saroo, a young Indian scamp who one night took the train with his older brother and didn’t return home for 25 years.

To do such an emotion and time spanning tale justice is no mean feat, but “Lion,” the meaning of which you’ll have to wait until the end credits to discover (and that’s only if you can see through the tears), is a melodramatic triumph, carried on the young shoulders of the outstanding Sunny Pawar.

Raised in a small, loving family unit in an impoverished, provincial town, Saroo (Sunny Pawar) and his brother, Guddu, will do whatever they can to make sure that their mother and sister are provided for. When we’re introduced to the duo, wide-eyed, slight of frame Saroo, and his stronger, older brother, steal coal from atop a moving train in order to trade it for milk.

When Saroo begs his brother to take him on one of his night shifts, he wakes to find the station abandoned, and so begins a journey that ultimately leads him to Australia and his adoptive parents, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), who raise him as their own for nigh on two decades, until he can no longer supress the nagging feeling that his family don’t know what happened to him.

With no notion of his family name or hometown, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) must do the impossible all over again in order to find his way back.

The first half of the film is undoubtedly the strongest, mainly because it contains the bones of the story and Sunny Pawar’s adorable performance. It’s a set-up comparable to the feeling you got when you were a child and just for a moment you lost sight of your parents in the supermarket. Now imagine that for an hour and you’ll understand the hopelessness involved in watching this small child swept into a world of unfamiliar languages and people. It’s terrifying.

The young actor we’re following on this journey through crowded streets, strange beds, and an orphanage that looks more like a prison, is quite something. Pawar is super-confident, like an Indian Oliver Twist, stealing water melons and smart mouthing his brother, but it’s in his quieter moments, whether holding the hand of a fellow lost child, or watching his adopted brother throw one of his anger fits, in which he can exude strength or vulnerability without the need for words.

His absence is felt in the second half, but that’s not to say that Patel, Mara, and a “Rabbit Hole” level performance from Nicole Kidman aren’t also great, it’s just that the style of the film shifts to a more meandering, dreamy construct. It reflects Saroo’s mental state, and relies heavily on mood and montage rather than the straight-up drama that had served his journey to Australia so well.

This also means that relationships are rather rushed, with Saroo and Mara’s unfolding in soundbite dialogue, dances, and lingering stares. The film does a good job of highlighting his isolated mental state, but it’s to the detriment of the interactions with others.

You’d have to have a heart made of stone not to be moved by it all though, even if the swell of music is a little on the heavy handed side. By the time you get to the documentary footage showing the real people depicted by Garth Davis’s touching film, you’ll have forgiven the seemingly endless Google Map montages and submitted to the overriding humanity of it.