As a five-year-old in India in 1986, Saroo Brierley didn't expect to be whisked nearly 1,500 kilometres away from his family, and not be able to find his way back. Then, after being adopted by an Australian couple, he definitely didn't expect that he'd have a date with Google Earth as an adult, trying to locate the place that sparked so many memories. This stranger-than-fiction tale inspired a book, and now a movie too. And while a big screen adaptation of his life story might be the latest thing the real-life Saroo didn't anticipate, it's audiences that are in for the biggest surprise.
If you didn't know that Lion was based on actual events, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was simply a feel-good fantasy. First-time film director Garth Davis (TV's Top of the Lake) and writer Luke Davies (Life) recount Saroo's story faithfully, including its well-publicised ending. Yet despite the twists and turns having played out in the media, the Australian duo still manage to deliver a thoughtful, sensitive and emotional viewing experience. Yes, you'll know that tears are coming. But they'll still feel well and truly earned.
Aerial shots of the Indian landscape immediately set audiences on a journey, with a charming little boy (newcomer Sunny Pawar) their guide. Tagging along as his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) seeks work to help their mother (Priyanka Bose) with the family finances, Saroo falls asleep on a train. By the time he awakens, events have been set in motion that will see him fending for himself on the streets of Calcutta, before eventually being adopted by Tasmanians Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham). It's two decades later, as an adult (now played by Dev Patel), that Saroo turns on his computer and begins his search for home.
Sometimes, it's the simplest things that have the strongest impact: a child's warm, cheeky smile; the pain of a lost past lingering in a man's eyes; haunting visions of familiar places embedding themselves in the mind. Saroo's quest owes a lot to a certain search engine, but that's neither the most interesting thing to watch nor the most important part of the narrative. Crafting a highly personal story that conveys universal themes, Davis and Davies ensure that Lion doesn't forget this fact. Even as it balances several competing elements — the two countries Saroo calls his own throughout his life, his feelings for his two families, and the push and pull between old-fashioned human connection and the influence of modern technology — the film never loses its footing
Indeed, the key to the movie is people. Or, to be specific, one person and two shining performances. Pawar and Patel each possess the naturalistic spark that keeps viewers along for the ride — one innocent and endearing, the other oozing inner conflict and yearning. As a result, Lion does exactly what it needs to make hearts soar and tears swell. It might do so in a standard fashion, but, boy does it do it well.