“Based on a True Story” can be a warning that the filmmakers have taken so many liberties the “true” of the story has been lost. On the other side of the equation, it can instead tell the audience that an unbelievable story actually did happen. Lion is an example of the latter.
In 1986, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives in a village in western India with his mother, older brother, and younger sister. It’s a hard life – Saroo assists his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) in stealing coal off a moving train to barter for milk – but they are a loving, close family. When Guddu heads for a job in a nearby town, Saroo talks his brother into taking him along to work. But when they arrive Saroo is too tired and only wants to sleep. Guddu leaves him on a bench at the town’s train station, with the admonition not to go anywhere.
Saroo awakens to find the station completely deserted. A group of railway passenger cars have been left on a siding, and Saroo enters a car to find a better place to sleep. When he awakens, the cars have been locked and hooked to a train headed to the main railroad yards in Calcutta, 1600 kilometers away. Saroo manages to survive in the city, though not without several close calls, in particular from people who exploit the city’s street children. Through good fortune he’s adopted by an Australian couple and moves to Hobart, Tasmania.
Twenty years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel), is still close to his adoptive mother and father, John & Sue Brierley (David Wenham, Nicole Kidman), and has a romance blooming with Lucy (Rooney Mara) whom he met at hotel management school. At a party with others students of Indian descent, a plate of food releases memories of his lost life. He only knew his mother as “mama” – no proper name – and what he remembered as the name of his home village didn’t match anything on the maps. About all he remembers as a landmark are water towers by the train station. One of the party goers suggests using a new computer program to backtrack his route. The program: Google Earth. (Google assisted the production, including providing images from the time frame of the film.)
This is the first feature for Garth Davis, an internationally acclaimed director of commercials. The screenplay by Luke Davies, based on Saroo Brierley’s autobiography, splits the movie into two almost equal pieces between the young Saroo and his later quest to find his family. Davis, assisted by cinematographer Greg Fraser, captures both India and Tasmania in a rich, intimate way. While Davis and Davies hadn’t done much feature film work before Lion, Fraser is one of the preeminent directors of photography in Australia. In the last decade his films include Rogue One, Zero Dark Thirty, Foxcatcher and Let Me In.
This is a more mature performance from Dev Patel, who became a star with Slumdog Millionaire, followed by both Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pictures as well as appearing in HBO’s “The Newsroom.” He gets top billing, though he doesn’t appear until the last half of the film. However, he makes the most of his time and deserves the Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination he’s received, as well as the win in that category at the BAFTA awards. While he’s tended toward gawky characters in previous projects, this could be the beginning of beefcake roles for Patel who shows smoldering good looks and a buff physique.
Nicole Kidman is also nominated (Best Supporting Actress) for her restrained but deeply felt performance. At the end of the film we see real footage of the real Sue Brierley and realize Kidman nailed the embodiment. But the major delight is Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. The camera reads his emotions like a book. In his first role he holds together the first half of the movie, and hold it he does.
I don’t know if this Sunday night will bring any golden statues for Lion. Along with Patel and Kidman, Davies and Fraser are nominated along with the film’s score, plus a Best Picture nod. The picture, though, has aimed to have an effect long after the lights go up in the theater. In India, 80,000 children go missing each year. It’s the equivalent of losing the population of Indianapolis each year. There are also 11 million children on the streets of India, roughly equivalent to the combined population of New York and Los Angeles. The film’s production companies, See Saw Productions and the Weinstein Company, have launched the LionHeart foundation with the Charity Network to help India’s street children.
I do suggest you bring along a tissue or two when you see Lion.