I knew very little about this film as I went into my pre release screening for it and I feel knowing very little was beneficial to my experience so I will keep my plot summary very short.
Based on an true story, Lion follows the life of Saroo a young boy living with his Mother, brother and sister in India. After a series of events Saroo finds himself hundreds of miles away from his family lost in Calcutta. From here he gets adopted by a family in Australia. Years later as an adult memories of his shattered past start to come back to him, those memories send him on a path of self discovery as he begins to search for the place in which he came from and his family that he was separated from.
To my surprise the film is split into what I would describe as two acts. Act one following a young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) as his journey into the unknown unfolds, when he becomes lost and separated from his family. Then act two follows an older adult Saroo (Dev Patel) who then begins the search for his true family. The first act of the film lasts for the entire first hour of the film, it was a risky choice that ended up paying off to great effect. The first hour of the film relied on the quality of Sunny Pawar’s performance, if his performance wasn’t at the level it needed to be, the first hour of the film wouldn’t work. Luckily he was outstanding. He’s certainly one of the more talented child actors I’ve seen in quite some time. Through his performance we begin to connect and emphasise with this young boy who very quickly finds himself in a frieghtening situation. There’s moments where Sunny conveys raw emotion just through his facial expression which lets the audience know everything they need to know about how he is feeling at that current time. He acts like an experienced actor who has been doing it for years.
After the 60 minute mark the baton gets passed onto Dev Patel, who strikes a wonderful balance of showing a young man grateful and appreciative with the life he has been given by his foster parents, whilst still being haunted by fragmented memories of his past. Dev’s performance immediately left a positive impression on me. Within minutes of screen time he manages to make himself extremely likeable. During the film, Saroo has subtle moments of torment which Dev did a good job of conveying without over acting, it could have been easy to slip into a more theatrical and exaggerated performance with these scenes but he avoided that. It’s his subtle and slightly subdued actions that make everything that more believable. As the film progresses forward, we begin to learn that Saroo faces a greater conflict within, when he realises he has to find the answers to his past. You sense the struggle he faces as he attempts to avoid notifying his foster parents of his desire to seek out his real family, out of fear of upsetting them and disrespecting them. The performance here is so strong you can really understand the inner conflict Saroo is dealing with. On one end of the spectrum he is happy and content staying in the company of his foster parents, but on the other end he is desparate to find his true family. Witnessing Dev’s performances as he portrays Saroo’s battle with this conflict is compelling stuff. On top of that he also has a blossoming relationship with his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) to deal with. She didn’t get a large amount of screen time but Rooney was effective in the scenes she was in. Without spoiling anything, the direction their relationship begins to go in just adds another layer of conflict that begins to remain on Saroo’s mind.
His Australian foster parents are played brilliantly by both Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. They add another level of humanity to the film, their unconditional love for Saroo strikes you as soon as they first meet him. Up until that point we’ve seen this young boy go through so much but they are the spark to bring joy back into his life as child. Nicole fantastically blends passion, pain and emotion in her performance to give us a well rounded character that we can very easily empathise with. She’s brought this family together out of her own desire to help give two young children a better life, and as she grows older she wants nothing more than to be able to hold the family together in the face of adversity. I feel like I’ve said the word conflict a lot in this review, but her character dynamic works very well because it creates a conflict (I’ve said it again) with what the viewer would want the outcome to be. The viewer will immiedeatly be in favour of Saroo finding his real family, but at the same time you don’t want to see his current family become fractured because of it. Every performance in this film is award worthy, and the film stands as tall as it does because it has the strength of these performances as it’s backbone. Also the script is written in a way which doesn’t make certain aspects of the film, feel as formulaic and cliche as they probably should.
First time director, Garth Davis does a great job making the audience feel like they’re experiencing every moment with young Saroo, a majority of the shots are kept at his eye level so we really get to see from his perspective when he lost miles and miles away from home. This technique helps us understand how small he is in comparison to the new surroundings he finds himself lost in. In the more intamate emotional moments of the film, Garth keeps the camera lingering on the actors and allows the scenes to sometimes be quite lengthy, which is more of a benefit than a hinderance because it allows the emotion to build up to a point where you’ll almost be left in tears yourself.
The only thing I can fault in this film is the pacing, which at times felt like it slowed down a little too much. It also felt like that the film was focusing on a certain aspects of the story for a little too long, before moving on but that could be considered nitpicking because I honestly struggled to find anything else to fault the film for.
Overall Lion is an emotionally powerful and moving tale of loss and self discovery. Brought to life by excellent layered performances from the entire cast backed up with a sophisticated style of direction.
(4 Stars out of 5)
Lion; Starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kidman, David Wenham and Sunny Pawar.
Directed by Garth Davis. Now showing in UK & US Cinemas.