If one could use only a single word to describe this adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s stirring memoir A Long Way Home, it might be “emotional.” You’ll try your best to hold back the tears, only to find yourself incapable of not being thoroughly moved by Saroo’s journey. In that sense, Lion may be this year’s Whale Rider, where your own sniffling will be masked by that of those around you.
Directed by Garth Davis (The Top of the Lake), an Australian television director making his big screen debut, there are obvious comparisons to Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, due to the film’s early setting and the presence of Dev Patel in a far darker and more mature role than we’ve ever seen from him.
As the film opens, the young Saroo (first-timer Sunny Pawar) is helping his older brother steal coal from a moving train in order to get milk for his family, who are living in poverty in a small Indian village. During one nighttime excursion, Saroo’s brother leaves the boy sleeping on a bench at a train station, but when the boy wakes up, he goes looking for his brother and wanders onto an abandoned train, which shuts its doors, leaves the station and travels for days, dropping the young boy in Kolkata (the former Calcutta) where he’s hindered by a language barrier. For the first few months, the young boy lives on the streets, begging for food and money.
Granted, Sunny Pawar is quite precocious as Saroo, but watching such a young child forced to endure so much at an early age is just heartbreaking. You want to reach into the movie and give him a big hug. Fortunately, Saroo does end up in an orphanage that brings him together with his new adoptive parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. The story then jumps forward a year when Saroo’s new family is joined by Mantosh, another boy from an Indian orphanage who is suffering from some form of autism.
From there, Lion moves forward 20 years, as the older Saroo, played by Patel, is heading off to college in Melbourne. There, he meets Lucy (Rooney Mara) and makes new friends. At a small gathering of peers, Saroo is reminded of his original home, and finally begins to talk about ordeal. They advise him to use Google Earth to try to trace his trip back to the original train station where he was separated from his brother. It’s a harder quest than you might imagine, as he has to recall small details from childhood, and his inability to find his old home drives Saroo into seclusion.
The first thing one needs to mention when talking about Lion is the fantastic job Davis did with what must have been difficult material for a first-time Australian director. Besides having to find the younger Saroo and spending the first 45 minutes working with an inexperienced actor and a mostly Indian cast, there’s also a matter of finding and recreating those amazing locations.
That alone is impressive, but when Saroo’s story shifts to Australia, it becomes more about Luke Davies’ fantastic screenplay and the acting with Dev Patel delivering a performance unlike any we’ve seen from him before. Part of what makes it so different is that Patel is bearded with shaggy long hair, but delivering the type of emotions required to show how Saroo is changed by his quest.
While Kidman’s role as Saroo’s adoptive mother is a smaller one, there’s a later scene between her and Patel that’s as strong as anything you’re likely to see this year, because Saroo must come to terms with how his search might be affecting his adoptive mother’s feelings. Rooney Mara also plays an important part in this drama, as she has to contend with watching Saroo tormenting himself with his obsession to find his mother and brother with so little to go by.
Another interesting aspect of Lion is how it uses memory as one of its key components. We normally aren’t compelled to think about what or how we are able to remember, especially about our childhoods. If you realize how much of your life is forgotten as you get older, one can understand Saroo’s frustrations with having a large portion of his past erased by circumstance.
When you combine all of that with the sweeping shots of India—and the generally gorgeous cinematography by Greig Fraser and the perfectly-crafted score by musicians Hauschka and Dustin O’Halloran that effectively builds on the emotions without feeling manipulative—you end up with a film that’s absolutely beautiful on every level.
We won’t spoil how Saroo’s quest to find his home and family goes, because watching this journe unfold is part of what makes Lion so wonderful, but you’re unlikely to see a film as filled with emotions this year.
Lion opens in select theaters on Friday, Nov. 25.