by Joanna van der Veen
If you go and see Lion (2016), here is a piece of advice: bring tissues. Lots of them. This film is a tear-jerker, by turns heart-breaking and heart-warming, and it faultlessly snares your emotional investment from its very first scene.
It is based on real-life events and tells the story of Saroo, who we first meet as a charming and cheeky five-year-old boy in India (an absolutely mesmerising Sunny Pawar). One night, he accompanies his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to a nearby train station to look for some work. When Saroo is too exhausted to go any further, Guddu leaves him to sleep on a bench in the station – under strict instructions not to move. When Saroo wakes, he finds himself alone and goes to look for his brother in a nearby train. He falls asleep again, and when he wakes he finds that the train is on the move – and he can’t get off for another 1,600km. When he does get off, he finds himself in Calcutta, an enormous city where everyone speaks a different language and where no one bats an eye at a small child wandering around on his own.
He has no way to get home and danger lurks around every corner. Saroo comes close to terrible things but eventually ends up in a children’s home, from which he is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). The action of the film then jumps forward 20 years and we meet Saroo as an adult (an accomplished Dev Patel). He’s charming, well-adjusted and doesn’t seem too preoccupied about his past – until a chance encounter with an Indian sweet starts bringing back memories of his first home. Thus starts the second ‘movement’ of the film: Saroo’s search, facilitated by Google Earth, to find out exactly where he came from.
Lion could be described as being about Saroo’s quest to find his way back home. But this would be to oversimplify – we spend so much time with young Saroo, and are given so many small and incidental insights into adult Saroo’s life – that the film is more nuanced than that. It is about Saroo as a person, what has made him who he is and how he can marry the various influences at work in his life. As such, it touches on a much broader theme, one that most people will be able to relate to: the struggle to find your own identity.
With such an emotionally charged plot, Lion could easily have become too sentimental or too focussed on the tool (Google Earth) instead of the person using it. Thankfully though, it has found two safe pairs of hands in first-time feature director Garth Davis and scriptwriter Luke Davis. Sure, there is the occasional clunky plot device in the latter part of the film but, really, this doesn’t matter. By that point, Lion has got you by the scruff of the neck and it’s almost impossible to struggle out of its grasp.
It is a film full of contrasts: young Saroo and adult Saroo, India and Australia, Saroo’s optimistic outlook and that of his adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), poverty and material comfort. These are brought out beautifully by some impressive performances, enhanced by clever and memorable cinematography. The bustle and chaos of the train station in Calcutta and the greys and browns of Saroo’s homeless months are followed by the open space, bright blue sea and clear skies of Tasmania. Some stunning aerial shots of both countries provoke awe while subtly referencing Google Earth. Flashbacks of the past are skilfully and seamlessly interspersed with the present.
The emotional tension of Lion reaches its crescendo in the space of just a few minutes at the end of the film. If your weeping eyes can bear it, here is just one more piece of advice – stay put and don’t leave the cinema until the end of the credit roll.
Joanna van der Veen / Writer (London, UK – 1990) Joanna splits her time between freelance translation, writing and working for a local urban regeneration project. She loves films that err a little bit on the strange side, and previously worked for a multi-language radio station dedicated to independent cinema, attending a whirlwind of film festivals from London to Mar del Plata.