"Saroo, our beautiful boy!"
Based on a true story and more specifically the incredible true life story of Saroo Brierley and adapted from his book "A Long Way Home", Lion was another in a long list of films whose trailer I saw on countless trips to my local picture house and whose release was eagerly awaited in early 2017. Suffice to say my eagerness was rewarded by a remarkable directorial debut from Garth Davis and his big screen vision is a remarkable film that brought me repeatedly to tears on my first viewing and continued to do so on each of the four subsequent occasions I saw this gem of a film at the cinema and recently again on it's initial DVD release. Ostensibly the film is in two halves as it charts the heartbreaking true story of Saroo Brierley from a tender and innocent young boy in the wilds of India through to a strapping young man making a life for himself half the world away in Australia. The story itself begins in 1986 in a remote Indian village and a staggering performance from one so young but for whom acting greatness is surely assured in the coming future.
Commencing in 1986 we see "Young Saroo" (Sunny Pawar) for the first time beautifully captured in a field of butterflies as he surveys his surroundings before joining his brother "Guddu" (Abhishek Bharate) stealing coal from a passing train, their lives immediately apparent as the coal is quickly bartered for milk for his Mother "Kamla" (Priyanka Bose) and younger Sister "Shekila" (Khushi Solanki) which is quickly consumed with gusto in their rundown shack in a remote Indian village. Cheeky and playful, Saroo is also determined to emulate the older brother on whom he dotes, accompanying him on a more adult orientated work detail late into the night, partly to prove he is big and strong beyond his tender years but more so out of a desire to help his family and a Mother and Sister his massive smiles convey so much love and appreciation. Tired from their long journey, Saroo is left to sleep by his brother but after waking Saroo desperately tries to find his brother and in doing so accidentally embarks on a non stop, 1600 mile train journey to Calcutta and finds himself all alone in the teeming, busy and bustling streets of Calcutta. Taken in by a local lady beside the railway tracks before falling into the Indian child welfare system that deals with hundreds of thousands of similarly misplaced and lost children every year, young Saroo is given a chance of a lifetime and of redemption as he's adopted by a childless Australian couple living in Hobart and in 1987, Saroo's young life is about to change yet again. This is but a brief overview of the opening half of the film and there is much left out to keep spoilers to an absolute minimum, but what isn't a spoiler is the absolutely magnificent, magnetic and heartbreaking performance from Sunny Pawar as the young Saroo. His cries of anguish as he struggles to find his older brother are spine chilling, as is his bewilderment at the hectic and overly populated city of Calcutta he now finds himself in, surrounded by grinding poverty at every turn and the hopeless situations of so many thousands of children just like him. Pawar's portrayal of loss, devastation and alienation is incredible from one so young, his huge beaming smile now replaced by fearful eyes, hunched shoulders and wary looks, whether sleeping rough or housed within a huge reform school for young children, Pawar's performance is utterly compelling of an innocent young boy lost in an adult world and a world away from the comfort of his loving family. Almost wordless as he attempts to adapt to his new home in Australia, Pawar's last piece of screen time is just perfection itself, as he comforts and cuddles his adoptive Mother for the first time, a short scene that never fails to bring a tear to my eyes.
Spring forward twenty years and we see Saroo a grown adult and adoptive "Aussie" native in the guise of Dev Patel's Oscar nominated performance in 2017. Best known for his brilliant television appearances in Skins and The Newsroom as well as his big screen performance in Danny Boyle's Oscar winning film Slumdog Millionaire, it is arguable that Patel has never been better than here as the adopted Australian national who may call himself an "Aussie mate" but is still fiercely proud of his Indian roots. Patel was a worthy Oscar nominee in 2017 for his portrayal of an adult Saroo branching out into the world once more but this time under his own steam as he embarks on a career in hotel management and moves from the incredible love and guidance of his adoptive parents "Sue Brierley" (Nicole Kidman) and "John Brierley" (David Wenham). However, his dreams and nightmares continually haunt Saroo even in spite of both his blossoming career and similarly a blossoming love affair with "Lucy" (Rooney Mara) he admits candidly to friends that he's "not from Calcutta. I'm lost" and in a heartbreaking exchange with Lucy "Every day my real brother screams my name". Saroo has been lost for 25 years and he resolves to finally find his real blood family. Patel's performance is sublime at times, heart wrenching at others. He retains the huge beaming smile of his younger days but this barely hides the anguish at his separation from his real family and home.
How to some up succinctly what a joy of a film this is? In addition to the aforementioned performances there are many additional remarkable performances too, from Nicole Kidman as Saroo's adoptive Mother Sue, all big hair and warm smiles in the 1980's through to heart bursting love twenty years on for a son she adores and a performance that garnered Kidman yet another Oscar nomination in 2017, her third in fifteen years. David Wenham is excellent as the understated and quiet adoptive Father John, with Divian Ladwa absolutely outstanding as the mentally disabled adoptive brother of Saroo, Mantosh. Saroo is clearly a golden child of sorts and Ladwa's performance of aggressive resentment mixed with his disability truly broke my heart. As well as the Mother/Son embrace that brings an end to the first half of the film, there is a similar embrace with the older Saroo towards the film's climax, brilliantly book ending this familial drama and ostensibly Mother/Son story. I simply adore Lion for all these reasons and so many more, Hauschka's mournful yet joyous musical soundtrack of simple piano and strings, the soul crushing flashbacks and interludes of Saroo's memories of times past and of a directorial debut from Garth Davis that takes an incredible tale and tells it so simply and yet so very well. It's an astonishing debut film that ranks with the very best of recent years. But it's perhaps the simplest and briefest scenes that got me the most, be they a game of beach cricket with the family, a heartfelt hug from young child to adoptive Mother, a hillside walk with Lucy or a walk into a moonlit sea. Lion is a favourite film of 2017 and I cannot see it being surpassed by many this year as the bar has been set incredibly high here.