The first forty-five minutes of Lion will break your heart. It is the story of a small boy called Saroo who, through events out of his control, finds himself separated from his family and lost in India’s Calcutta. What then precedes is a terrifying and edge-of-your-seat adventure as Saroo goes from one perilous situation to another, surviving on wits and luck as he does.
If the whole film had been this young boy’s journey through India, surviving alone as a homeless child, it would still be hugely effective. This is a large part through the excellent performance of child-actor Sunny Pawar. Sunny holds the screen perfectly, sells the fear, excitement, joy and in some cases resignation to his unfortunate circumstance. There are some well-trained adult actors who don’t give as convincing performance as Pawar does here.
This is just the first half of the movie though. The second is the story of how Saroo found himself in Australia and how losing your family and subsequently your identity, can affect you even in adulthood. The acting duties are transferred across to Dev Patel as the adult Saroo and he ably meets the challenge.
Patel has a different spectrum of emotion here. He has to be obsessed, distraught and quite unlikable in certain circumstances, which is in conflict with the young Saroo we are rooting for as an audience. He is ably supported, with Rooney Mara slightly going through the motions as his girlfriend. Nicole Kidman does the heavier-lifting as Saroo’s adopted Mother, a role that comes with baggage as Saroo’s new family is not quite as idyllic as it first seems.
There is a lot more to this movie and the story of Saroo than really gets explored. A complicated relationship with his adopted brother, who is also from a traumatic childhood, never really gets the screen-time and development it deserves. The strains on Saroo’s relationships with his Mother is left to be guessed at best given one, well-acted but lacking scene. It also falters because the Australian story, which Patel leads well, is a weaker story compared to how thrilling and invested you are for the first half of the movie.
This isn’t any fault of the script or the story itself though. Amazingly, Saroo’s story is a true one. The authenticity and knowing that this is based on fact helps you forgive the second half drag or the some of the plot points which seem to rely on luck. If it wasn’t true, you may be tempted to call it lazy writing.
The first half makes you invested in the tale though and it pays off well in the finale. The comparison between Saroo on-screen and the real-life footage used over the credits means your heart will probably break again for the ending too.
Overall, Lion is an incredible story, well told. The first half is thrilling and could well have been a movie to itself. The second half compliments the first, with Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman giving great performances, but it never matches the quality of the younger Saroo and the excellent performance by child-actor Sunny Pawar.
Rating – 4
(1 – Awful, 2 – Average, 3 – Good, 4 – Great, 5! – Must See)