Even though the marquee-value star names of the real-life drama Lion appear in the second half, it’s really the first half of the Garth Davis directed film that interests the most.
Based on an autobiographical book called A Long Way Home, Lion tells the true story of Saroo Brierly who at the age of five became lost from his Indian family after falling asleep on a train near his village and waking up 1600 kilometers away in Kolkata. When we first meet the boy, young Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in poverty. There isn’t even enough money for school.
Saroo and his older brother are begging at a railway station when Saroo boards a stationary train and falls asleep. When he wakes, like an end-of-the-world scenario, it’s as if the planet has emptied; the train is moving, but the carriages are vacant. As the little boy frantically runs along the passages he can find no one. Plus, all the doors are locked. He continually calls for his brother, but there is no answer.
Once the train finally arrives at its destination, Saroo doesn’t know it but he’s at the Howrah Railway Station in Kolkata. Not only is he miles from his family and his village, he can’t speak the local Bengali dialect, only Hindi. Unable to properly communicate or understand what is being said, Saroo runs from the train and roams the streets of the city, sleeping at night on flattened cardboard boxes and eating whatever scraps he can find from city trash dumps.
The film takes a surprisingly harrowing tone when late-night child abductors raid the tunnels where several lost children are sleeping. Saroo narrowly escapes, but the sequence is a painful one to watch as you realize the dangers the little boy is facing. He’s not simply lost, at every turn he’s a target for all kinds of merciless predators.
It will be at least forty-five minutes until the film changes location and tone, and this, oddly enough, is where things become less interesting. After more narrow escapes, the boy eventually ends up at a government-run center for abandoned children where he is finally adopted. Unable to locate any family, Saroo is declared an official lost child and finds himself on a plane to Tasmania, Australia where he is met at the airport by his new parents, John and Sue Brierly (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman). “You’ve come a long way,” the kindly Sue says to the boy, who at this point speaks little English. “You’ll tell me about it one day.” The couple also adopt a second Indian child, but he doesn’t adapt to new surroundings quite as well, bursting into hysterics and pounding fists against the wall.
It’s twenty years later and Saroo is a grown man, now educated and speaking the language with an Aussie accent and played by Dev Patel. He’s had a good life with the Brierlys, who clearly love him. So, too, does his girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara). It’s while at an Indian-food dinner party where Saroo suddenly reflects back on his origins and where his real family may be. The way the film sets the moment, you get the impression that thinking about his past is something he’s never before considered.
With all the film’s advance publicity, plus the fact that the book itself was well-received, most already know the emotional outcome before going in and are aware of how Saroo used Google Earth maps to relocate his Indian village. With this in mind, the film suffers not only from advance knowledge but a lack of any sense of real suspense. Patel does a lot of emotional soul-searching with lengthy, moody moments that, frankly, drag, which comes as something of a letdown when the first half with the little boy, vulnerable and lost in the streets of Kolkata, is particularly strong.
However, the scene where Kidman later explains to Patel why she adopted him and his step-brother rather than have her own children is a genuine, heartfelt moment delivered with convincing emotion. Plus, the inevitable reunion with his real mother near the end will move many to tears, and it should.
But when in some final closing titles the film tells of events that had occurred once Saroo fell asleep on that train twenty years earlier (Saroo’s mother spent years looking for her lost son, visiting temples and traveling on trains to different places in the hope of recreating the child’s steps) you can’t help but feel how rich the film might have been, particularly in that second half despite Nicole Kidman’s welcomed presence, had it not told the story exclusively from Saroo’s point of view.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 120 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)