Lion, directed by Garth Davis, pulls you in with its endearing character and its powerful story, and then takes you on a journey that is human in its every facet. What we get with this film is something that is very concise in its approach, but it is also so giving, in terms of the time and the space that it allows its characters and its story to get comfortable and find its rhythm. Through some perfect pacing and difficult choices (which could have sent the film spiralling off in the wrong direction), Lion is able to explore and deliver something that is heart-breaking, in how beautiful it is. I’m eager to get into the full review, so let’s get this underway.
This true story follows, Saroo. We first meet him when he is a young boy (5 years-old) – played by Sunny Pawar. During this time we learn of his life and also the unimaginably terrifying event that saw him taken far, far away from his brother and mother. Living on the streets and alone, Saroo is helped by a kind lady, who has him adopted by a loving family who live in Australia. It is here that we jump forward in time to a much older Saroo (25 years-old) – played by Dev Patel. Here we see the struggle that he goes through, as never knowing where he truly came from or if his mother and brother were alive and well, is something that tears him apart inside, every day. His impossible search for home is now all that matters to him, and it might be the thing that consumes him.
What surprised me about this film was how long it spent with Saroo when he was a 5 year-old-boy. I was expecting the film to give us a quick introduction to the harrowing event that saw him getting lost, and then explore the rest of that time through flashbacks. I was not expecting to spend nearly half the film with this lost, scared boy. I think it is the best decision the film could have made. You really get to connect with Saroo, and you really get to understand what hardships he went through.
Being there for so much of that scary time and then seeing what terrible people and situations he encounters, does so much in connecting you with not only Saroo, but also the story. We as an audience become a part of it; being there for a majority of the struggles, and I think knowing that it is based on a true story, only heightens the investment that you have in Saroo and his journey.
And I of course must offer up as much praise as I can for the work that, Sunny Pawar did in his performance as, Saroo. This is his first ever time acting and you wouldn’t know it from how brilliant he is. It’s kind of incredible to think that a large portion of this film is led by someone who has never acted before, and yet all eyes are on him, and all responsibility (from an acting standpoint) is on him. It didn’t take long for me to become a Saroo fan, or a Sunny Pawar fan, as the two are simply wonderful. Hearing Saroo call out his brother’s name – Guddu, played by Abhishek Bharate – is something that is now forever inside my head – heart-breaking.
The way the film endears you to not only, Saroo, but also the relationship between, Saroo and Guddu, is what makes this film such a powerful experience. It sets it up in a really digestible way; you understand pretty quickly just how close they are and how much they care for one another. And I feel that the time the film spends developing them both and their bond, goes a long way to adding those emotional blows later on – ones that you feel even more connected to as the film progresses.
But then the film does something really interesting. After, Saroo is adopted (trust me this isn’t a spoiler, it’s a very well-known component of the story) and is taken to Australia, the film then jumps 20 years ahead and now Saroo is portrayed by, Dev Patel. I was interested to see not only how they would do this, but also if it would work. We spend so much time with him when he is 5 years-old and we feel that bond with him; that to then move away from that and then join back up with him when he is much older and we are less well-informed as to who he is, was something that was going to be difficult and ever so slightly risky.
Well, I feel it worked well. Partly why that is, I think, is down to having some understanding of who his adoptive parents are (not much of an understanding, but still something that we can recognise). Having that connection point between, Saroo as a young boy and Saroo as a 25 year-old-man, really does help the audience have that visual grounding point to work from. And then from there we have to learn and explore his life from this new angle (new for us, not him). It’s of course pretty different from what we as the audience had been experiencing before – Australian life and life is Calcutta is pretty different.
It is here that the responsibility of the film, story and character moved over to Dev Patel’s shoulders and what he did was take on that responsibility with ease. He builds on the character and adds much to it. But what he never does is lose who Saroo was, he shows the pain that would surely be in someone who had gone through something like he had, and he makes it an integral part of his performance.
Patel is excellent in his lead performance and he is also supported by some excellent supporting cast members. In particular, Nicole Kidman – who plays Saroo’s adoptive mother. She has her own struggles in the film and the connection that her and Saroo have is certainly one that helps emotionally connect you to his new life – as we have been so use to his previous life in Calcutta, with his loving family there. What this film does so well, is it gives you a person to care about and it gives you a story that you then want to root for the happy ending, but also through it all, it gives you little off-shoots; branches of other little stories (within the larger one) that help to further connect you with, Saroo and his story. Everything plays its part in keeping the focus on this incredible story/journey of this young boy who is accidentally taken far, far away from home.
And one of the things that the film did, that only made it more emotional was it would have glimpses of Saroo’s past begin to bleed into his current life. There would be moments where Saroo (portrayed by Dev Patel at the time) would be walking along the beach and towards his house, but alongside him would be Guddu, just as he remembered him when he was a young boy. It is little moments like this that help to keep everything feeling one in the same. Having those bonds reach through time and still touch on Saroo’s life in present time, really are emotionally resonant and from a cinematography standpoint stunning. Like I said, everything helps to keep your focus on what is important.
The last point I want to make about this film concerns the score that both, Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran bring to the film. What I found interesting about it was that it wasn’t necessarily always one that I noticed. I knew it was there, but my ears didn’t always immediately pick up on it (though weirdly, part of me still knew it was in there somewhere). But then there were the moments where I absolutely did here it, and… wow. It is the kind of music that only adds to the emotional resonance of everything and never takes anything away. There was more than once that a particular piece of music would begin to play (‘A Long Way Home’) and it would just hit me, leaving me completely in the emotional control of the film. To put it simply, it is beautiful.
For me, Lion was a film that unequivocally succeeded at everything it was trying to do. It paced itself perfectly and it was subtle in its approach. It had a stellar cast of actors and characters who you couldn’t help but fall for. And everything was positioned towards making sure it was serving the story and the characters within film. It is a brilliant achievement.
So yes, I will definitely be recommending, Lion. It is getting much attention this award season, and rightly so. Make sure it’s one that you get out and see.
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