Film Review: Natalie Stendall reviews Lion

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The trailer for Garth Davis’s debut feature Lion would have you believe it’s a schmaltzy, sentimental story about home and family, writes Natalie Stendall.

The truth is, it’s an extremely well made and deeply involving drama that makes a concerted attempt to examine some of the cultural issues involved in overseas adoption. Nominated in five categories at this year’s BAFTAs, Lion tells the true story of a lost Indian boy.

When five-year-old Saroo becomes separated from his older brother, he accidentally gets trapped on a decommissioned train to Calcutta and ends up 1,600 kilometres from his family.

Without money and unable to speak the Bengali language, Saroo endures life on the city’s dangerous streets. He’s eventually adopted by an Australian family and 20 years later begins a search for the loving mother he believes is still looking for him.

The last decade has unearthed some truly gifted child actors from Jacob Tremblay (Room), and Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) to Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts Of The Southern Wild).

Lion introduces Sunny Pawar who steals the entire movie from accomplished stars Dev Patel, Rooney Mara and Nicole Kidman. As the young Saroo, Pawar takes us on a nightmarish journey into the predatory streets of Calcutta where he must rely on intuition and instinct.

As his life unravels, Pawar’s vulnerability leaves an indelible impression that’s hard to shake even as Saroo is adopted by caring and stable parents in Australia (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham). Saroo’s desperate calls for his brother ‘Guddu’ are Lion at its most haunting.

It’s these early, foreign language sequences that secure our interest in Lion, even as its bigger ideas become distracted by a lightweight romance and heavy-handed Google Earth searches.

In this, the film’s markedly weaker second half, Dev Patel is spread too thinly, given surprisingly little space in which to explore the older Saroo’s relationship with memory and identity. The film’s 20-year gap leaves a gaping hole in the story and Patel is left to work with a rather abrupt beginning to Saroo’s soul-searching.

That said, screenwriter Luke Davies makes a considerable effort to explore the ethics of overseas adoption as Saroo becomes increasingly troubled by his new found privilege and his adopted mother (Nicole Kidman whose return to form here is striking) embraces the realities of her decision. Meanwhile, Saroo’s adopted brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), also from India, experiences a debilitating relationship with his own past that explores the less rosy cultural and psychological aspects of overseas adoption with greater complexity.

Beautifully shot by Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher) with an evocative score from Volker Bertelsmann and Dustin O’Halloran, Lion delivers an absorbing story with an all-consuming pay-off.

4/5