Director: Garth Davis
Screenplay: Luke Davies
Starring: Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Divian Ladwa
Runtime: 118 Minutes
Lion is one of those remarkable real-life tales which is almost hard to believe really happened. A basic enough premise taken from the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley, this story of a young man’s reconnection with his long-lost family is so exceptional because of the very modern context in which it is placed. Saroo Brierley (Dev Patel) lost his family as a young boy India, yet through circumstance ended up being adopted halfway around the world in Australia, and was able to locate his family home thanks through the use of Google Earth.
This is the debut directorial feature of Garth Davis, whose most recent work was on the terrific Top of the Lake series. Davis’s direction is very calm and observant, allowing scenes of agency in the films first half to spiral away from the characters control without much need for heavy editing. The sequences following the young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) immediately after becoming lost will be hard to take for any parent – it’s difficult to witness such a small and misplaced child lost in a world he doesn’t understand. In this case literally, as he doesn’t speak Bengali and finds it even more difficult to communicate with people besides his position as a child, who can only refer to his mother as ‘mum’.
This takes up the films first half, and newcomer Sunny Pawar really is a remarkable young performer. It’s in the second half, away from the visual business and tough locations India, that the film’s pace and general engagement begins to wane.
Luke Davies’s screenplay is good at balancing the drama of familial strife and origins that the older Saroo, and the character focus on Saroo’s personal crisis suddenly re-emerging and consuming him is very well portrayed by Patel. Rooney Mara tries to make the most of a pretty thankless and thin role as his supportive girlfriend, Lucy. The relationship that he has with David Wenham and Nichole Kidman as his adoptive parents is challenging, and Kidman is surprisingly capable at projecting the complicated sentiments of a strained family.
But a great deal of the energy and wondering magic of the first half is lost in this new location as the drama is prolonged and stretched out. The pacing begins to feel like a drag, and it is difficult to convey that sense of discovery onscreen as Saroo charts out his findings on maps and laptop screens that don’t quite manage to hold the essential concentration.
Greig Fraser’s cinematography is very light and physical, especially in the first half’s more rugged and exotic terrain, and the narrative structure manages to avoid becoming anything too saccharine. It’s a movie of experience as we follow Saroo’s personal journey, and Lion is certainly an interesting story – if not all that exceptional a production overall.