The moving “Lion” is the incredible true story of two profoundly remarkable journeys that Saroo Brierley took in his life – one far away from home, and his return trip back. Based on his memoir, “A Long Way Home,” the film is split into two halves that reflect his round trip. But the film, directed by Garth Davis, with a screenplay adapted by Luke Davies, covers far more than just distance, delving into the deep emotional journey required for such a voyage.
The first half depicts the travels of young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), just 5 years old when he becomes separated from his brother at a train station in Khandwa, and ends up on a decommissioned passenger train that takes him 900 miles away to Kolkata. There, he’s placed in an orphanage and adopted by an Australian couple who live on the island of Tasmania. The return journey, delayed over two decades, follows the emotional trip of adult Saroo (Dev Patel) as he uses modern technology to find his village and travel back across the ocean to find his family.
The amazing newcomer Pawar is tasked with the far more action-packed portion of the story, as Saroo makes his way through the predatory and hellish urban jungle of Kolkata, where children are snatched off the streets by hoodlums and traffickers. Pawar more than carries his weight in a role that’s physically and intellectually demanding, depicting the intelligent and intuitive Saroo. You can sense his highly-developed self-preservation instincts and the decision-making processes that keep him safe. He actively decides to go to Tasmania as a way to escape the prison-like orphanage.
Saroo carries this emotional intelligence into his new life with his adoptive parents Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), and grows into a young hospitality management student in Melbourne. Patel, given a leading man role, easily grows to fill the needs of this complex and conflicted character, a man caught between two worlds, two cultures and two families. He’s a jovial, athletic, beer-drinking Aussie, the product of his adoptive parents, but also much more.
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Patel is tasked with portraying the Saroo who is split in two. As much as he’s come to terms with his nationality and identity as an international adoptee, hanging with his new Indian friends triggers memories that send him down a rabbit hole of searching, scouring Google Earth for landmarks he might remember from his youth. The strapping, confident Aussie goes from sharing sweet romantic moments with his American girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara) into a brooding depression, haunted by visions of his mother and brother.
The latter half of “Lion” dives into the emotional depths that Saroo sinks into while trying to hide his desire from his adoptive mother, with whom he shares a strong protective bond. It’s a brief, but juicy role for Kidman, who is equally luminous and devastating as a woman who demonstrates her own boundless love in sharing a son with another mother. Saroo emerges from the darkest depths to find light.
A lilting score by Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka evokes a sense of nostalgia that tugs at the heartstrings, and underscores the film’s message about the essentially human need to always find and return home. But the beauty of “Lion” is that it explores and allows for the unique possibilities and power of multiple homes, multiple families, and multiple selves.
Rated: PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality. Starring: Dev Patel, Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman. Director: Garth Davis. Running time: 120 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Flicks.