It feels like only yesterday that a gangly, wide-eyed Dev Patel was a religiously conflicted and randy member of the original Skins gang. Fast forward a shocking decade, though, and Patel has just won a BAFTA, and will be in Los Angeles as a genuine Oscar contender this month. As riotously fun and notoriously controversial as that series was upon its release, Lion is emotionally devastating and intelligent – a worthy film from a variety of angles.
Lion‘s most audacious decision is presented immediately; the film’s long first section is presented entirely in subtitled Hindi and Bengali, following a young boy in India. This is Saroo, a plucky and lovably five year old brought evocatively to life by newcomer Sunny Pawar. His tiny frame and enormous eyes haunt the film, as his story progresses from a happy and innocent home to a disorientating and alarming separation. Accompanying his idolised elder brother, Guddu, on “night work” after much pleading, Saroo falls asleep and wakes up alone. Wandering onto a nearby train for shelter, he awakes to find himself speeding away from all he knows.
Director Garth Davis’s decision to tell the audience that he is some 1,600 kilometres from home is a cruel, but hugely effective use of dramatic irony, and contributes to the gut-wrenching near-misses that follow as this adorable child veers ever closer to disaster after ending up alone in Calcutta. Eventually, however, he falls into the adoptive arms of Australian parents, a fabulously permed Nicole Kidman and kindly David Wenham. Shortly thereafter the film skips forward 20 years to find Saroo a hirsute and handsome man preparing to make his way in the world.
Enter Dev Patel, to match Pawar’s innocence and terror with depth of feeling and emotional torment. Saroo now feels torn apart by his mixed heritage – unfamiliar with Indian food and geography as a reaction to remembered traumas and dreams. He longs to make contact with his family, to let them know that he survived, but feels that he is betraying his adopted parents in doing so. Encouraged by friends and the ever-graceful Rooney Mara as his sometime partner Lucy, Saroo begins to research possible locations for his home-village using the then-astounding powers of Google Earth; this is a revelation that will cause chuckles in most screenings, so old-hat does this undeniably wondrous technology now seem.
Lion holds no judgment for its characters, and this lends the film a warmth of feeling which has tremendous value. The young Saroo makes naive mistakes, as any five year old will do, and is manipulated by adults both well-meaning and sinister, but the story never feels like a chastisement of Indian affairs or culture. Similarly, the older Saroo is pitied, but not martyred. Patel shows him to be at times harsh to those he loves, and self-centred; his depth is refreshing and impressive, and doubtless was aided by the collaboration with his real-life self, Saroo Brierley. The performances Davis ekes from his cast are uniformly impressive, and unflinching in the face of emotional turmoil. Lion presents a story worth telling in any medium, and through collective effort renders it in emphatic and empathetic style.