The best true stories are often so outrageously implausible that they would be laughed off the screen were they a work of fiction. Lion is one such true story, and a very well-acted, deeply moving contender in this year’s awards season.
In 1986, five year old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) gets separated from his older brother, accidentally travelling a thousand miles across India on an out-of-service train he cannot get off and ending up in Calcutta. Because he is unable to speak the local language (Bengali rather than Hindi) for some time he lives rough on the streets, getting into a series of Dickensian scrapes that mercilessly yank at every maternal and paternal heartstring in the audience. Eventually he is placed in an orphanage but because his family and home town cannot be traced, he is then adopted by an Australian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham). Over twenty years later, using Google Earth, the older Saroo (Dev Patel) tries to figure out where he came from and to find his long lost family.
The first half of this film in particular is exceptionally well made, with director Garth Davis generating a genuinely heart-in-mouth lost child scenario on the unforgiving streets of Calcutta. Performances are excellent, not just from the Oscar nominated Patel and Kidman but especially from the young Sunny Pawar, who is absolutely adorable as the young Saroo.
This is also a film about the importance of adoption. The unconditional love of Sue and John proves particularly moving not so much because of their adoption of Saroo, but in their adoption of another Indian child, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav and Divian Ladwa playing young and old versions of the character respectively). Mantosh is a deeply troubled child with mental health problems, and a source of tension in the family, and yet the sacrificial love Sue and John show towards him is genuinely Christ-like. In some ways, this subplot reflects the parable of the Prodigal Son, with Saroo as the older brother (all the more ironic, given that he himself is lost to his Indian family).
It’s not without flaws. The second half loses momentum and gets bogged down in a little too much of the regulation quitting jobs, lashing out at loved ones, etc all the better to brood and obsess over Google Earth. Also the very end features the usual cliché photo montage/footage of the real people, underlining in thick bold pen for all the dummies in the dark that yes, this is a true story. This technique, once a stroke of genius (Schindler’s List), is now a lazy afterthought.
All that said, Lion is still worthwhile, still powerful, still immensely moving and still very much a film to see.