Award-winning commercial and television director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) makes his cinematic debut with LION, based on a true-life story that’s custom made for the big screen. When Saroo Brierley was reunited with his Indian mother after being lost for 25 years, it made Indian and international newspapers. Adapting Brierley’s book A Long Way Home, screenwriter Luke Davies (Candy) takes a few liberties with people and locations, but retains the emotional core for a broadly appealing biographical drama.
Born into poverty in west-central India, a young Saroo is separated from his family when he mistakenly falls asleep on a train while waiting for his brother. Little does he know that he’s actually travelled over 1500km away from his village. After living rough in Calcutta for several years, he is adopted by Australian couple Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Brierley (David Wenham) and whisked off to Tasmania. Decades later, new technology allows an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) to start searching for the location of his lost home.
Davies’ script spends a healthy dose of its running time concentrating on Saroo’s early life, firmly establishing his world and the complete sense of devastating loss. Filled with small acts of kindness with sinister edges, it’s here where the film is most comfortable. Shifting gears to Hobart/Melbourne in 2008, LION becomes laser-focused on performance, but struggles to maintain the same level of tension as it builds towards a hurried last act. By the same token, it affords equal time to exploring the troubled relationship Saroo has with adoptive brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), and the impetus that led him to search for his family.
Patel’s impeccable Australian accent and mannerism sells his culturally conflicted character, earnestly emoting the hole that sits inside him. Likewise, Kidman disappears into Sue Brierley, and not just because of the shock of 1980s hair that recalls BMX Bandits. As an upper-middle class Tasmanian, her world is far removed from Saroo, and her intense performance (bordering on delirious in its early moments) is the glue that holds the two lives together. Less successful is the character of Lucy (Rooney Mara), an analogue for one of several girlfriends that dealt with Saroo’s obsession, who sort of floats through the film to provide a cheer squad or reality check at pivotal plot points. Greig Fraser’s photography is beautiful, filled with overhead shots that mirror the Google Earth motif.
LION‘s expected consciously tugs at your heartstrings, even if it takes a familiar formula in getting there. Skipping over what must have been a bizarre experience of growing up in Australia, Davis and Davies take the most traditional route possible, falling back on the tropes of the genre more than once. Indeed, some of the biggest revelations are casually tossed out in the textual coda at the end of the film. Nevertheless, a few tears will probably be shed by the humans in the room by the end of any given screening, but you can almost take a checklist of when you are likely to cry them.