When Saroo Brierly was five, he took a ride on a train that changed his life. Growing up in a poor neighborhood in India, Saroo accompanied his brother to a train station for a work assignment. While Saroo’s older brother, Guddu, went to work on a train, Saroo slept on a bench at the station, only to wake up and find himself alone. Saroo searched for his brother by entering a locomotive that quickly left the station and thrust the boy into another world. Suddenly, Saroo found himself in a place where no one would help him and no one could be trusted. His struggle to find his home eventually led to his being adopted and flown to start a new life with a family in Australia.
Saroo’s journey, captured in the 2014 book A Long Journey Home, is now a motion picture that portrays his harrowing childhood experience. The film is at its strongest when the story is set in India. When the location moves beyond India, the intensity wanes a bit.
Sunny Pawar plays Saroo as a boy and Dev Patel plays him as a young man. Pawar had me in his corner from the moment he first appeared on screen and gives a fine performance. Patel finally has a role unlike any other he’s played before and sinks his teeth into a real character. It’s refreshing to see the actor outside of the typecast roles he’s been playing in subpar films like Chappie and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. In Lion, Patel gives a soulful, internalized but passionate turn. He’s so good in this, you won’t feel gypped when he’s stepping in for the captivating Pawar.
The harrowing first half is made vivid and nightmarish, like a Dickensian odyssey with the threat of child exploitation. We believe in the scary journey Saroo takes and root for him to escape. Director Garth Davis makes plausible a world of threatening adults and outsized obstacles keep Saroo from his family.
As the mother who adopts both Saroo, Nicole Kidman is great in an immersive, layered character turn but we want to know far more about her role than the movie ever tells us. A far bigger problem is with Rooney Mara, always a welcome presence but, unfortunately, she’s stuck here playing the supportive, long-suffering girlfriend role. The dynamic star of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Side Effects shouldn’t be playing this kind of thankless role in a movie that doesn’t need her.
Lion is always involving and engrossing but it’s also kind of a drag. We see Saroo board a plane for Australia and I was counting down the minutes until he will inevitably be returning to India.
The character of Saroo’s adopted brother is another, like Kidman’s, who needed more time to develop. Davis keeps the focus on Saroo’s long held pain of separation but doesn’t allow the people around him to come into focus.
The final scene is deeply satisfying and the closing post-script offers a few unexpected surprises on how the story turned out. Although the movie works, I wonder if this would be far better as a documentary. The addition of very-Hollywood touches (such as Mara’s character and the familiar qualities of the film’s second half) suggest that the true story would be better represented without screenplay requirements. Yet, Lion is a more focused, authentic-feeling tale than the flashy, utterly contrived Slumdog Millionaire.
The best and worst thing about Lion is that it plays like the finest, longest and most persuasive commercial for Google Earth ever produced.