“Lion,” the heart-tugging true tale of Saroo Brierley, is the story of one determined man’s attempt to connect with a past he barely remembers.
When we first meet Saroo (played as a child by Sunny Pawar) he’s a lively five-year-old boy living in abject poverty in a small town in India. His mother is a labourer, moving rocks to eek out a living for her family. Saroo and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) help out, stealing coal from passing trains to make money to buy milk. When the boys get separated while looking for work the youngster ends up on a train, destined for Calcutta, 1600 km from home.
Alone and lost, he desperately tries to find his way home, but without knowing the name of his town or mother—“Her name is Mum,” he says.—he wanders the streets, his only possession a piece of cardboard to sleep on. For weeks he navigates through the dangerous city streets, learning who to trust and when to run. Found and sent to an orphanage, he is then adopted by Australians Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). “Did you really look for my mom?” he asks as his caseworker signs off on the paperwork.
Cut to twenty years later. Saroo (now played by Dev Patel), raised by loving parents, has grown into a handsome young man, but is increasingly troubled by the question marks of his early life. “I’m lost,” he says to girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara). “Do you have any idea knowing what it is like knowing my real mother and brother spent every day looking for me?” Thoughts of his early life plague him until he begins to piece together the details of where his journey began.
Nicole Kidman may be the Academy Award winner in the cast, and she is very good, but the performances you’ll remember come from the two Saroos, Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel. Two actors, one character; both looking to find themselves, physically and spiritually. It’s an engrossing and often heart-wrenching journey and the pair keep us interested for the whole trip.
Pawar is a wide-eyed charmer, innocent but fearless, who conveys both the desperation to get home and the will to survive in dangerous situations. It’s a performance completely free of the preciousness that often mars kid’s work; one that effortlessly cuts through to the core of the character.
Patel navigates a different part of Saroo’s journey. As an adult he speaks English with a heavy Australian accent and can no longer remember the Hindi of his youth. Thoroughly westernized it isn’t until he accesses some long repressed memories that his need to find his real home surfaces. Patel embodies the emotional battle between the home he has grown up in, with all the comforts of a loving adopted family, and a need to understand where and who he came from.
“Lion” isn’t perfect—some of the Google Earth searches are as interesting as you might imagine a Google Earth search on the big screen to be—but it is emotionally engaged with all of its characters, and you will be to.