by Hope Madden
Inspirational, true-life tales – however tailor-made they seem to be for a big screen presentation – can be tough to deliver with integrity. In fact, the more tailor-made they seem, the tougher it can be.
Director Garth Davis manages to hit most of the right notes with his cinematic telling of Saroo Brierley’s amazing journey in Lion.
At 5-years-old, Saroo (played as a child by the impossibly cute and talented Sunny Pawar) follows his older brother to the train station where they’ll scrounge what they can from between seats and on the ground. But Saroo wanders off, falls asleep in a train car, and by the time he gets off, he’s thousands of miles from home – alone in a train station in Calcutta.
What follows – told with surprising restraint and solid focus – are the details of his struggle to survive and, decades later, to find his mother.
The adventure is harrowing. Davis chooses wisely between the events to explore deeply and those to leave ambiguous. We glimpse things that are clearly menacing but not fully explained because we’re seeing them through the eyes of a bewildered child. The result is a dark sense of all that could have occurred, not a sledge-hammer about the lurid details Saroo couldn’t possibly have articulated.
Once the film moves to Australia, where the boy relocates with an adoptive family, Davis again shares enough details to give the film a memorable sense of authenticity. The now grown and well-cared-for Saroo (Dev Patel) struggles with longing, guilt and a crippling concern for the pain his birth-family must bear because of his absence.
Patel deserves credit for a performance unlike the work we’ve seen from him in previous efforts. As a performer, he has tended toward painfully earnest representations, an over-actor who relies heavily on hyperbolic reactions.
Here, though, is a far more nuanced turn – one that benefits immeasurably by the chemistry he shares with Nicole Kidman, playing his adoptive mother Sue Brierley.
Dependable as ever to explore the depths of grief, Kidman conveys the conflicting emotions that, in their way, inform Saroo’s struggle. She’s surrounded by solid performances from a strong ensemble.
The film does make its missteps. The talented Rooney Mara is both underused and overused. Her flatly written character contributes little to the overall narrative, and yet the romance crowds a story that has more interesting things to say.
Faults aside, Lion dives into grief, guilt and love with refreshing honesty to tell the most unbelievable story in a way that echoes with a human connection we can all appreciate.