19 Jan 2017

Review: Lion

From Widescreen, 9:28 am on 19 January 2017

Lion kicked Dan Slevin’s ass and for that he makes no apologies.

Google Earth was the catalyst for Saroo Brierley’s successful search for his family. Dev Patel plays him superbly.

Google Earth was the catalyst for Saroo Brierley’s successful search for his family. Dev Patel plays him superbly. Photo: Transmission

Don’t trust reviewers who pretend to be perfectly objective. It’s not possible. We come to the role with pre-existing conditions and if our editors had any sense they would have used those conditions to keep us out like an American health insurer but here we are.

My Achilles’ heel has always been the sweet spot where redemption stories meet displacement or diaspora. Preferably involving children. These are the stories that never fail to engage and move me. I can’t recuse myself and I won’t apologise.

So, I’m here to report that Lion kicked my ass big time to the extent that I was the last to leave the cinema at the end of the credits. It’s the confident debut feature from Australian Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) and I knew what to expect going in. I’d read a Vanity Fair article about Tasmanian-Indian Saroo Brierley and his long quest to find his original family a few years ago and thought at the time that it might make a good film.

Brierley arrived in Australia as a five-year-old lost boy, relocated after Indian authorities were unable to find his family. How he became lost is only the first heartbreak in the film. Dirt poor in the province of Khandwa in central India, Saroo was devoted to his older brother and insisted on going with him when Guddu went to the railway station to scrounge for work or beg for money.

One night he fell asleep waiting for Guddu to return and woke in a little boy panic when he couldn’t find him. Searching, he boarded an empty train only for it to start moving. Empty because it was due for decommissioning, not stopping for the same reason, the train travelled for two days and over 1600 kilometres, stranding Saroo in Kolkata where he lived on the streets for three weeks before being picked up and placed in what couldn’t be described as state care.

Sunny Pawar plays the young Saroo and he (with the help of New Zealand acting coach Miranda Harcourt) have come up with the finest child performance of the century so far. He’s a marvel and one of the reasons – Alexandre de Franceschi’s editing is another – why the various threats he encounters are so powerful.

Patel as Brierley continuing his search on foot.

Patel as Brierley continuing his search on foot. Photo: Transmission

The other reason to see Lion is the performance of Dev Patel as the adult Saroo, sporting the best Australian accent I’ve heard in years (and that includes most Australian actors if I’m honest). Patel was the star of another film about a grown man looking back on a perilous but colourful childhood, Slumdog Millionaire; that was my personal favourite of 2009 so I’m obviously a sucker for this sort of thing.

Lion isn’t as self-consciously modern as Slumdog. Davis has made a story that’s easy to follow – even if you’ve never tried to find your old house on Google Earth — and his romantic vision suits the material perfectly.

I expect hard-hearted critics (i.e. not me) can easily find fault in its sentimentality, its underwritten secondary characters and its golden hour gloss, but its care for its actors and the love they give in return trump all of that for me.