“Did you REALLY look for my mum?” asks little Saroo, in an orphanage in Calcutta, sitting opposite Mrs Sood, a kind but firm woman charged with finding new homes overseas for unclaimed children. “I looked everywhere”, she replies. And with that, Saroo has to move on to a new family far away in Tasmania, while acknowledging that his mum is truly lost to him.
I should tell you, this film review is brought to you by Kleenex, and if you have an iPhone you’ve got another reason to keep it hidden in your bag during the film as, well, we all know what moisture can do to a smartphone and you’ll probably be weeping through a good chunk of this film. (In fact this morning, just thinking about what to write in my review, I found myself welling up AGAIN.)
At least we get a warning – the ratings screen at the beginning notes that Lion contains “scenes of emotional intensity”, although I feel this rather underestimates the heart wrenching to come, like when someone tells you that childbirth might hurt a bit but you’ll forget it immediately afterwards.
Despite the sadness, Lion really is a brilliant, beautifully shot, subtly soundtracked, joy of a film – the true story of five year old Saroo who, while looking for his older brother Guddu, climbs onto a train which takes him over 1000 km away to a part of India where he knows no one and does not speak the language. Eventually adopted by an Australian couple, Saroo in adulthood manages to track down his home village using Google Earth, and incredibly manages to find his mother and siblings.
Saroo has been asleep on station bench, waiting for his brother to come back for him after a night’s work, when he wakes up and, thinking Guddu is on a nearby train, climbs in and goes to sleep again. Waking up alone, he’s stuck on the out-of-commission train for a couple of days before he’s finally deposited in West Bengal. He doesn’t speak Bengali and can only keep saying Ganestalay, his mis-pronounced version of the name of his neighbourhood, which no one has ever heard of. First teaming up with a group of street children in the station, the group is broken up and he runs off, sleeping rough until he’s found by Noor, a woman who at first seems kind and takes him in but turns out to be more sinister. Trusting his instincts Saroo runs off, and is eventually helped by a young man who sees him mimicking him through a cafe window. Ending up in an orphanage, Saroo is chosen for adoption overseas and is sent to Australia and a new life.
Saroo is tiny – he’s only 5 (the same age as my youngest, who can’t even put on his school shoes the right way round and whose every third word is “MUMMMEEEEE!”) and though we know that children in other countries have to grow up a lot quicker, and earn money and take responsibility from a young age, it’s clear that he is, at heart, just a little boy – whether desperately trying to hold up a wobbling bicycle to prove to Guddu (who he idolises) that he is strong enough to help him that night, or rushing home to his mum crying and holding his forehead when he’s been hit carrying a watermelon, or spinning in a field as butterflies float around him.
The actors are really first rate. Sunny Pawar who plays young Saroo is gobsmackingly good. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a better child performance in years. He’s in at least half the film, and deserves an avalanche of awards. Dev Patel is brilliant as the older Saroo, wanting to find out about his roots, but scared of upsetting his adoptive mother, and furious with his very troubled adopted brother Mantosh for many things, but particularly for not being Guddu.
Nicole Kidman is so good as Sue (if you can draw yourself away from her succession of fabulous 80s and 90s hairstyles), Saroo’s adoptive Australian mum, who we see loving introducing Saroo to his new life then some time later almost crushed by the difficulties Mantosh brings with him when he also joins the family. (Older Mantosh is played by Divian Ladwa whose performance I found really moving. His back story isn’t told – possibly deliberately? – but he really conveyed the pain of the outsider who is both welcome and unwelcome). David Wenham is Sue’s husband John, your typical Aussie dad – warm, calling everyone mate, but Sue is the centre of the family.
Lion manages to avoid a lot of the cliches that often bedevil the process of bringing real life heartwarming tales to the big screen. There have been some changes to the story (Saroo’s girlfriend at university, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara, is an amalgam of women who helped him), but apart from that it seems pretty near to the real life tale. And the film never sugar-coats what happens to Saroo, either in India, with his new family, or when he finds his mother later on.
And the tears? Through sheer willpower I managed to hold off weeping (crying is like going to the loo when on a mums’ night out – you hold on as long as possible as once you go, you’ll be going all night) until Saroo meets his new family at an airport in Australia and then the floodgates opened for me. I sobbed and did that weird hiccupy throat thing all the way through the last half, crumpled tissues bunched in my hand.
My two minor complaints about Lion – apart from the fact that I looked hideous for the rest of the day, all red and puffy – are that Rooney Mara is rather wasted (I felt she could have been anyone, so it didn’t surprise me to find out later that her character wasn’t “real”), and that the film ever so slightly drags in the second half, after the sheer vividness, buoyancy and intensity of the first half. There’s quite a lot of looking at maps, online and off, and sticking little coloured pins in those maps then taking them out again. And it’s hard to make looking at 1980s train speeds interesting.
But these are very minor quibbles. In the main Lion is a beautiful and touching film that will gently grip you throughout. My advice is, give in, weep, and enjoy the catharsis of a good wallow with a realistically happy ending.
(Note: if you come out feeling you need to do something, you can go to www.lionmovie.com and donate to charities which help street children in India and around the world.)