“Lion” is one of Australia’s most critically and commercially successful films of the last decade; and unfortunately until very recently it had evaded me. You’ve, most likely, seen or heard of the outstanding performances, the beaming light of Sunny Pawar as young Saroo and the tortured internal struggles conveyed by Dev Patel as the older Saroo. “Lion” though, is much more than a performance showcase with a ripe subject matter for emotional juicing; director Gareth Davis and writer Luke Davies craft a powerful tale that transcends language. “Lion” is unadulterated cinema, reaching out to the audience to embrace and be embraced.
This transcontinental tale of yearning begins humbly. The story is split in two. In an unnamed poor provincial town Saroo (Pawar) and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) are little hustlers, scrounging money for their small family. When Saroo insists that he’s tough enough to help his brother with night work, Guddu reluctantly invites him along. When the young lad can no longer fight off sleep, Guddu leaves him to rest on an empty train platform until his work concludes. When Saroo rouses, he panics in the overwhelming isolation of the empty station and takes shelter in the sole empty train carriage that gets locked up and travels an uninterrupted two day journey to the other side of the country. Lost, living life for months on the streets, he’s collected and put up for adoption. His new family are Australians, from Tasmania John (David Wenham) and Sue Brierley (Nicole Kidman); who also adopt another Indian orphan Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav) to form their whole family. Mantosh unfortunately carries the literal and psychological scars of his life before adoption.
“Lion” then fast forwards to an adult Saroo (Patel) in 2008 - leaving Hobart for Melbourne and further education where he not only finds love in Lucy (Rooney Mara) but he’s prompted by his Indian college mates to use the newly minted ‘Google Earth’ to start looking for his family.
Davis does a formidable job of amplifying the world surrounding Saroo in his youth and collapsing the audience into his detachment and self-condemnation. Pawar plays the young Saroo with a purity early on so that it’s an agonising experience watching his little legs motor the character through a town riddled with opportunities to be exploited. Stunning silence and the hum of the oppressive world surround and dwarf the young man. Whether it’s the vast train platforms, locked train cars, mammoth bridges; whenever there’s a space that becomes too much for Saroo, he finds ways to retreat into enclosed spaces. As our window into the life of young Saroo concludes, Pawar’s eyes are filled with a quiet wisdom that looks like he’s seeing the aura of those around him. While Nicole Kidman’s wig probably got more attention than her brief but important performance did in the film; once must commend her for making Sue beam with warmth and love for Saroo in a way that reflected the audience’s collective enveloping virtual hug.
In his older life Patel commands Saroo’s retreats into himself. Davis crafted some incredibly tender and sensual scenes between Patel and Mara’s Lucy. Mara’s presence in the film, and their fast friendship and love, is done with a beautiful economy. Luke Davies’ script is so exact about when to have the characters communicating with words or with gazes. Walking parallel down opposite sides of the street toward the same party, they notice one another and begin to gesture in a way that looks like they’re about to burst, until Lucy (Mara) hides behind an upcoming telegraph pole, giving them both permission to reveal the electric connection. At the first party that they interact, Saroo is triggered by sense memory in the form of food to begin his search. The presence of his family occupy his life and propel him down a seemingly hopeless pursuit through the fog of memory.
“Lion” shares the same DNA as Vittorio De Sica’s seminal film of1950s Italian Neorealism “The Bicycle Thief.” Roger Ebert defined Neorealism as often referring to “films of working class life, set in a culture of poverty, and with an implicit message that in a better society wealth would be more evenly distributed.” “Lion” drops us square into the grind of working class life, the poverty is rife and clings to you like mud from a waste high bog. While director Davis and writer Davies aren’t as overt about the distribution of wealth as De Sica’s films, “Lion” contends with the ambivalence of adoption from the third world in the guilt of the adult Saroo (Patel). “Lion” sees that naivety from the young Saroo evolves and crystallises into a burr in the older Saroo’s mind. “The Bicycle Thief,” in essence, is a story of the anguish of a father who descends to amoral acts in front of his impressionable son out of the desperation of poverty. In the closing stanza of the film Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) is stalked by his son Bruno and must face the turmoil of having his son bear witness to the cycle of poverty being recreated.
“Lion” takes this device and internalises it in a way that actually enhances and expands upon the first half of the film’s neorealist style. Pauline Kael’s description of “Shoeshine,” Vittorio De Sica’s earlier masterpiece - Ebert proposed that it could function as the aspirational vision behind the genre: “It is one of those rare works of art which seems to emerge from the welter of human experience without soothing away the raw edges, or losing what movies lose, the sense of confusion and accident in human affairs.” The second half of the film is one of isolation, one where the ghosts of Saroo’s past are occupying his spaces because of those accidents and confusion as a young child. For the older Saroo, he has achieved his goals, found a great and tender love in Lucy (Mara) but he lives an insomniac life.
He knows the squalor that he escaped, he relishes the life he’s been afforded to live and yet there’s a lingering survivor’s guilt that sees his visions and memories bursting from his subconscious. The second half takes that agony and torture of a turning point and tortures the elder Saroo with it.
“Lion” authentically portrays that youthful confusion of accident and confusion in human affairs but takes you through the agonising internal consequences of those actions in later life. There’s a moment in Saroo’s (Patel) search where he’s on the precipice of giving up. He’s navigating the Google Earth map and begins zooming out from a city to a province’ from a province to a country; from a country to a continent from a continent to a hemisphere and from a hemisphere to the globe and then a view that sees the world dancing in the inky black of space. Could that blue globe be the punctuation mark on a life filled with despair? Could it be Davis beautiful and subtle acknowledgement to the possibility of other stories? For “Lion” the next moments of the film, ‘emerge from the welter of human experience;’ an accidental discovery. “Lion” is truly a rare work of art.