From the opening credits with sweeping geographical shots across Tasmania and Calcutta, you know that Lion is going to be full of spectacular visuals. It certainly earned its win for American Society of Cinematographers Award for Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography in Theatrical Releases (what a mouthful!).
Lion is a beautiful film: beautifully shot and a beautifully moving story of loss, identity and family. The film opens in the heart of India with little Saroo marvelling at butterflies fluttering around him in a barren valley and his brother Guddu calling him to follow. The young pair live in relative poverty with their mother and younger sister; they steal coal off passing freight trains to exchange for milk at the market.
Little Saroo sees a vat of jalopies being made, a fried Indian treat, and begs his brother to buy him one, but they cannot afford it. One day I’ll buy ALL the jalopies, declares Saroo. He is a strong willed-five year old who will do anything he can to help his mother and brother and begs Guddu to let him accompany him in a trip to earn money.
But unfortunately, when left unaccompanied, Saroo strays onto a stationary train at the station platform, which then sets off cross country, travelling for days all the way to Calcutta. He then finds himself lost and misunderstood as he speaks Hindi in a Bangladeshi region. There are plenty of other lost and orphaned children on the streets, so nobody bats an eye lid at poor little Saroo.
This part of the film is endearing as you view the streets of Calcutta through a child’s eyes: the disapproving looks from adults, people bathing, washing clothes and playing in the river, sifting through the tips (reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire) people sitting in restaurants looking out at the beggars.
His two month journey from the train station to the orphanage demonstrates his tenacity and bravery. Not to mention his literal street smarts. When he arrives at the orphanage, one of the other children tells him, this is a bad place. But there is hope, as so only a lucky few get to leave.
Saroo is one such lucky one. He gets adopted by an Australian couple and moves to Tasmania. His adoptive mother Sue, played by Nicole Kidman, is full of love and kindness, as is her husband John. But it’s Sue’s motherly instinct that really comes across as she gazes lovingly at him in the car on the first journey to his new home and watches with fascination as she lets him roam the house and explore his new home. His face lights up when he opens the fridge and finds it packed with food.
Kidman is excellent in what must be a meaningful role for her, as she has adopted children of her own from her marriage with Tom Cruise. The film sees her go through so many emotions, all of which she portrays so well. Kidman has always been good at being a bit weepy, but her delight with newly-adopted Saroo is heart-warming.
He lives a happy life with his new family, but it is disturbed a year later when they adopt another son, also from India. He is not as strong willed as Saroo and has clearly been through a lot; he screams, he kicks, he beats himself. And it takes its toll on loving Sue who can’t bear to see her child in so much pain. But Saroo, still placid and loving, helps her through.
The story then flashes forward twenty years to Saroo, all grown up (now played by Dev Patel) and off to study in Melbourne – hotel management. Where he meets the love of his life, Lucy, played by Rooney Mara. When hanging out with s new friends and doing the ‘getting to know you’ part of university, he begins to question his own origins. He’s from Tasmania, but really he’s from Calcutta, he was adopted. Important question, who does he support in the cricket? “Aussies all the way, mate.”
Then one night when he is at an Indian friend’s house, he goes to the kitchen to grab a beaver and sees a whole plate of jalopies. He smells them, takes a bite and memories of his childhood all come flooding back. “I’m not from Calcutta,” he says as he realises much of his early childhood had been suppressed.
Patel has come a long way since his days as an awkward skinny teenager playing Anwar in Skins. He nails he Australian accent and, like Kidman, his range of emotions is impressive as he battles his inner demons of wanting to be loyal to his adoptive mother. But having strong instincts to find his birth mother and his brother.
He beings a mission to work out where he really came from, with the help of Google Earth and the support of his girlfriend. Though he doesn’t tell his mother Sue and his father about his project, as he does not want them to think him ungrateful. But the project consumes him to the point where he quits his job as he becomes obsessed with finding out where he came from.
Nobody recognises the name of the small village he was from, all he knows is that if you walked through the trees next to his village and across the barren valley, you would reach the train station where he strayed onto the train. It had a large water tower opposite the platform and that is all he had to go on when examining the topographical images on Google Earth within hundreds of miles’ radius, based on how long he was on the train and how fast old diesel trains travelled.
The film is spectacular is watch, with beautiful cinematography showing the contrast of poverty-stricken Calcutta with the opulent seaside towns in Australia. The sound is also great, with much of the impact lying in the moments of silence, allowing observation of the visuals until interrupted by a small sound like the rumble of a train or the click of a cricket.
Much of the film’s more poignant moments lie in Saroo’s connection with his loved one, which is portrayed with close up shots of him gazing into others’ eyes as he realises more about them and himself in the moments of reflection, from holding Sue’s face as he wipes her tears as a child, to lying on top of his girlfriend Lucy and intimately looking deep into her eyes, to later in the film when he meets pele from his past – no spoiler here!
I was in tears as the lights came up in the cinema, particularly the real-life footage of the people the story was based on that are interspersed with the credits. It’s a heart-warming film that I’m sure will take home some more awards in the upcoming ceremonies and I recommend seeing it.