'Lion': Film Review | TIFF 2016

As enthralling as it is emotional.

Dev Patel plays a real-life figure separated from his family in central India at age five and reunited with them a quarter-century later in this uplifting drama that also stars Nicole Kidman and Rooney Mara.

A tremendously moving performance from Dev Patel is the resilient soul of Lion, the incredible true story of Saroo Brierley and his tenacious quest to find the family from whom he was separated 25 years earlier. But the role is made even more affecting by its through line from the equally indelible work of Sunny Pawar, the remarkable young actor who plays him at age five in the film's wrenching opening chapter. Garth Davis, who comes from a background in commercials and co-directed the lauded drama series Top of the Lake with Jane Campion, has chosen wisely for his first feature project.

Platforming in Los Angeles and New York on Nov. 25 before its national rollout, the Weinstein Co. release should find a very warm embrace from discerning audiences. It's that relatively rare breed — a classy crowdpleaser.

Comparisons no doubt will be made with the film that launched Patel's career, Slumdog Millionaire, and the early sections of this sprawling drama do in fact recall the Dickensian depiction of life for poor children in India in Danny Boyle's 2009 Oscar winner. But that movie was an exhilarating, high-energy fairy tale, while Lion is something quite different — a sober and yet profoundly stirring contemplation of family, roots, identity and home, which engrosses throughout the course of its two-hour running time.

Luke Davies' admirably measured screenplay, adapted from Brierley's memoir A Long Way Home, brings the innocent gaze of a child to its most harrowing episodes, and then later, the hard-won maturity of a young man who has struggled to know himself despite being grateful for the life he has been given. Onscreen text at the end of the movie reveals that 80,000 children go missing in India every year, and the knowledge that Saroo's experiences make him one of the luckier ones gives the conclusion enormous resonance.

Eschewing the overused convention of an adult framing device, the filmmakers begin in 1986, plunging us into the world of five-year-old Saroo. His mother (Priyanka Bose) works as a laborer, hauling rocks, while he and his adored older brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), supplement the poor family's meager existence any way they can. The delightful Pawar, an absolute screen natural, makes Saroo a happy kid eager to prove his strength by doing anything his brother can do. But they get separated when they go off looking for work. The panicked Saroo climbs aboard a decommissioned train, falls asleep and wakes up to find it moving, taking him 1,600 kilometers away to Calcutta.

Both in India and later when the action shifts to the Australian island state of Tasmania, cinematographer Greig Frasier frames the magnificent landscapes in all their ruggedness and beauty. Aerial shooting throughout the movie is spectacular. But what's most striking in the story's establishing sections is the sense of Saroo as a tiny speck against a massive, unfamiliar world, teeming with people. His isolation is intensified by the communication challenge of speaking only Hindi in an area where Bengali is the common language.

Covering the months when Saroo manages to survive alone in Calcutta, scrounging for food and narrowly escaping child abductors before being taken to an orphanage, Davies' screenplay shows the extreme vulnerability of children and the cunning of those who prey on them by presenting themselves as rescuers. The script also is effective in suggesting how the boy was so confused and worn down by the selective information being fed him that he gave up on ever finding his mother. This is heartbreaking stuff, its impact deepened by the elegant symphonic score by Dustin O'Halloran and Hausckha.

The filmmakers' ability to put us inside the head of a five-year-old boy is uncanny also in the tender scenes of his arrival in 1987 in Australia, at the home of his warm adoptive parents Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham, both superb). Just watching Saroo encounter such things as a television or a refrigerator for the first time is magical.

Skipping forward 20 years, Patel steps in as Saroo (nailing the Australian accent). He has been a source of great pride and happiness to the Brierleys, while their second adopted son, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), was too traumatized by the experiences of his early life ever to adjust. The script's perceptive grasp of character, the director's sensitivity to the material and the very fine work of the actors make these family scenes quite poignant, with some beautiful moments from Kidman in particular, in a deglamorized role that makes expert use of her emotional transparency.

When Saroo goes off to Melbourne to study hotel management, he meets American transplant Lucy (Rooney Mara) and a romance develops. But no less significant is his meeting, through her, of some Indian friends who ask about his background and plant the idea of tracing his roots by using newly available Google Earth technology. That process involves painstaking research around the minimal concrete information he can remember, while narrowing down the possible radius and retracing in reverse the train journey that took him to Calcutta.

Patel does arguably his most nuanced and heartfelt screen work to date as Saroo wrestles with conflicting loyalties — to Sue, saddened by his sudden withdrawal and by her troubles with Mantosh; to Lucy, keen to support him but increasingly shut out; and to his birth mother and brother, memories of them filling his head after being archived away in remote recesses for years. There are elements here that recall any number of sentimental dramas about characters reconnecting with their past. But the restraint and authentic feeling Davis brings to the material underscores at all times that Saroo’s amazing story is quite unique.

One could quibble about the protracted stop-start depiction of his search process, which seems designed merely to delay an outcome made obvious by the film's very existence. But there's no denying the swelling emotions of the final act, or remaining dry-eyed during the characters' joyous reunion.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentation)
Distributor: The Weinstein Co.

Production companies: See-Saw Films, in association with Aquarius Films, Sunstar Entertainment
Cast: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar, Abhishek Bharate, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Priyanka Bose, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Deepti Naval, Divian Ladwa, Sachin Joab, Pallavi Sharda, Arka Das
Director: Garth Davis
Screenwriters: Luke Davies, adapted from the book
A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley
Producers: Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Angie Fielder
Executive producers: Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, David C. Glasser, Andrew Fraser, Shahen Mekertichian, Daniel Levin
Director of photography: Greig Fraser
Production designer: Chris Kennedy
Costume designer: Cappi Ireland
Editor: Alexandre de Franceschi
Music: Dustin O'Halloran and Hausckha
Casting director: Kirsty McGregor

In English, Hindi, Bengali
Not rated, 120 minutes