Little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in happy, barefoot poverty with his family in the Khandwa district of India. But a chain of fateful events and decisions leads him onto a train which transports him a thousand miles from home. Unbeknownst to him, his destination is Calcutta, where few speak his language and even fewer notice another small child living on the streets. Poorly equipped at the age of four to return home, he is destined to spend months fighting for basic necessities to stay alive. Then one day, a stranger (Rhiddi Sen) – charmed by this grubby, yet engaging cherub imitating him whilst he lunches – alerts the authorities. After a fruitless search for his kin, Saroo is whisked off to an orphanage enroute to Australia, where he is adopted by John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman).
Beauty, Pathos and Drama
Based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiographical book, ‘A Long Way Home’, it is hard to fathom that ‘Lion’ marks Garth Davis’ debut as a director. From the opening scenes in the rocky plains of Khandwa, beset with butterflies that bewitch little Saroo, to the portrayal of his touching relationship with brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and ultimately his desperate quest to ‘be found’, Davis presents an epic tale packed with beauty, pathos and drama.
Pawar is convincing as a street child in Calcutta and will win you over (if it takes that long) with his perfectly-timed mime of lunching on imaginary soup with an oversized spoon. His unwavering gaze at his audience (Sen) is comic; Saroo is clearly taking time out from the trauma of life as a beggar, to indulge in being a child with a little make-believe. Poignant, of course, that warm soup is just a dream for him. Dev Patel is equally accomplished and makes a very real and believable Saroo in adulthood, showing understandable grief over the loss of his Indian family, alongside deep affection for his adopted family. Flashbacks mean that we see more of brother Guddu than expected and Bharate does a good job of imparting the closeness of his loving relationship with little brother Saroo. The latter’s adopted brother, Mantosh, is a challenging role for both Keshav Jadhav (child Mantosh) and Divian Ladwa (adult Mantosh) as he has episodes of sudden, severe self-harm and both actors handle this aspect of the role admirably. Wenham and Kidman are suitably doting as the Brierleys surely were. The former is natural and big-hearted as John, whereas Kidman gives us a wider range of emotion, displaying love for Saroo, determination with Mantosh and a depth of understanding for Saroo’s mission to find his family.
The factual element gives it extra credence, alongside the shocking statistic of 80,000 children going missing in India every year. This is Brierley’s story, but it could be the story for the millions of other children who have become lost since Saroo fell asleep on the Calcutta-bound train 25 years ago.
Review by Lisa O’Connor at Brighton Marina