Sometimes we’re just waiting for the technology to point us in the right direction. In 1986, a five-year-old Indian boy named Saroo was collecting coal to help support his impoverished family on the outskirts of Khandwa when he suffered a stroke of colossal, life-altering misfortune. Falling asleep on a train being taken out of commission, Saroo woke up on the other side of the country – where he knew no-one, and couldn’t even speak the dialect that might alert passers-by to his predicament.
Faced with no easy, immediate way back, Saroo became first a street kid, falling subject to the expected predations, then found himself absorbed into an orphanage stuffed with the similarly lost and left behind. From there, matters moved relatively quickly. A year after being taken into care, Saroo was being dispatched to Tasmania – even further from home – as part of an adoption scheme, ending up at the residence of Sue and John Brierley, where he would spend the remainder of his childhood.
Yet throughout these years, Saroo never lost the urge to return to the town whose name he never learnt to pronounce, where he presumed his birth mother and older brother would be waiting for him. Twenty years after his fateful deviation, the arrival of the Internet – and Google Earth in particular – would allow this lad to get a new perspective on the lay of his homeland, and plot a route back for himself.
The events that followed were documented by Saroo Brierley in his 2012 memoir A Long Way Home, where they formed a return journey too compelling for keen-eyed, hit-seeking producers not to option as a possible big-screen crowdpleaser in the lineage of Slumdog Millionaire. Yet where that film had Danny Boyle’s usual energy to shift us past its heightened fictional contrivances, Lion – Saroo’s story, as adapted by writer Luke Davies and directed by Garth Davis – proves a more measured and subtly rewarding experience.
This is evidently the work of a director journeying from TV (where Davis did half of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake) to film, and bringing some of the virtues of recent episodic drama back to the big screen with him. Rather than hurrying through this round trip, Davis clears room for the sights and sounds of Saroo’s journey, and takes time – right from the opening overhead shot of a child dashing through the desert – to orient character with place, even a place that character might find utterly disorienting.
Best of all: Davis and Davies take risks. It defies all studio-movie logic that the film’s top-billed star (Dev Patel, the original Slumdog) shouldn’t appear for an hour, yet he doesn’t, and the risk is allowed to pay off. The outward journey is instead carried by the remarkable Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo, giving unerringly natural, credible responses whether he’s digging desperately in the dirt for some trove or playing opposite Nicole Kidman as his foster mum.
If Lion’s second half proves a notch or two more conventional – nudging us back in the direction we travelled from, with Patel growing leonine locks to play Saroo the elder, rootless (and initially routeless) member of Hobart’s ex-pat student community – this first hour has already instilled in us a desire for home, family, closure: Davis and Davies take us round the houses to better deliver on those qualities to which audiences have traditionally responded.
The extra light and space allows the actors room to make substantial impressions: the film’s not plotting a straight line there and back, rather ploughing an altogether deeper furrow. The ever-improving Patel gives his most mature and nuanced showing yet, while Kidman works discreet wonders as Sue: here is a well-meaning liberal, at the forefront of that millennial trend for well-meaning liberals to adopt children from developing nations, who senses she will eventually have to let her charge go, while hoping against hope he’ll also make his way back to her.
Many films will parade before us on this year’s awards red carpet dangling the “human interest” tag, and in several cases, it will prove no more than false advertising. Yet Lion pulls off the rare double of being not only human in its concerns, but also interesting and quietly moving in how it pursues them. For all the distance Davis’s film covers, for all its 21st century digital trappings, this is a movie about a child who just wants another hug from his mother, and a mother waiting for another hug from her boy – impulses that are timeless and universal.
Lion opens in cinemas nationwide today.