Sometimes, it is said, truth is stranger than fiction. And, as director Garth Davis has perhaps discovered, filming such truths can be more difficult than filming fiction. Lion, based on the autobiographical tale of Saroo Brierley, tells of the author’s amazing journey from being lost at age 5 on the streets of Calcutta, more than a thousand miles from home, to his return journey as an adult to discover the place and people he left behind. By turns sad, frightening, and inspirational, the movie is impeded only by the difficulty of bridging the 25-year span between segments and accepting the older lead (Dev Patel) as a replacement for his younger self (Sunny Pawar).
Lion begins in a small village in India circa 1990 where a young boy, Saroo (Sunny Pawar), works with his older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), to complete chores that will help their mother, Kamla (Pryanka Bose), put a little more food on the table. One day, Guddu tells Saroo that he will be traveling by train to a distant city to find work. Despite his young age, Saroo insists that he comes along. His stubbornness is such that Guddu eventually relents but, along the way, the two brothers become separated and Saroo eventually disembarks in Calcutta not knowing where he is, how to speak the language, or the name of the village he has come from. Fortune smiles on the confused and frightened young boy — he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), and grows up with only dim memories of his biological mother and siblings. A quarter-century later, an adult Saroo (Dev Patel), uses Google Earth to research his past and make the decision to seek out his birthplace and contact any surviving relatives. More than anything, he hopes to be reunited with his mother and Guddu.
Lion’s first half, which focuses on the young Saroo, is exceptionally well done. Davis effectively captures the boy’s fear and confusion at being separated from his brother then stranded in a strange country where he understands nothing, can’t speak the language and doesn’t know the culture. Non-professionally trained actor Pawar (who doesn’t speak English) conveys the essence of a child’s view of this big, frightening world.
The film loses traction when it shifts to the modern day. Although there’s nothing wrong with Patel’s portrayal, there’s a disconnect between his interpretation of Saroo and Pawar’s. Admittedly, 25 years have passed, but it’s difficult for the viewer to accept these two actors as playing the same person. And, although Saroo’s trek back to the town of his birth is critical to finishing the film’s narrative arc, the character is less interesting as an adult than as a child and the story lacks the intensity evident during the first segment. Rooney Mara’s role as Saroo’s girlfriend, Lucy, is superfluous. She’s intended to illustrate the success he has achieved in assimilating and provide a "sounding board" for him but the part seems shoehorned in.
Although Mara is a poor fit for the storyline, the same can’t be said of Kidman, who puts aside her Hollywood stardom to take on a small, unglamorous role. This isn’t a flashy part but Kidman was drawn to the story and the real Sue Brierley (whom she plays) endorsed the Australian-raised actress to be her cinematic doppelganger. Although some of the key actors in Khandwa and Calcutta are professional, many are not. In the final scene, for example, there are no hired extras. Everyone is an actual resident of the area.
For Davis, the producers, and the cast, telling the story has been a passion. The documentary footage that closes the film was shot by Davis for a 60 Minutes special detailing Saroo’s life. Patel immersed himself in the history of his character in order to be better able to play him. And the production team refused to move the setting from Australia to America to acquire the support of a major studio (and the associated money). Lion represents a commitment from those involved and, flaws aside, it’s an amazing tale of resilience and determination.