BFI LFF 2016: Lion (2016)

Garth Davis’s Lion is a gripping, unsentimental adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s moving memoir.

Lost in Translation

by Alexa Dalby

Film Title

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Dev Patel carries the film with a strong, mature performance as the adult Saroo Brierley. As a very young child in a remote part of India, Saroo wandered away from his older brother Guddu (Abishek Bharate) at a train station and fell asleep on a long-distance train. By the time it finally stopped, he was 1,000 miles away in Calcutta, too young to know where he had come from and so unable to get help to find his way back. An orphanage arranged his adoption by an Australian family. As a young adult at college in Melbourne, mixing for the first time with multicultural peers, they trigger his memories of his Indian heritage in a Proustian madeleine moment, and he is inspired to search for the place he came from and the family he lost.

It’s hard to get the images of Slumdog Millionaire out of your mind as more than half of the film is taken up by young Saroo (wonderful performance by the young Sunny Pawar). We see the poverty of his home village, the hovel where his family lives, and his mother working as a labourer carrying rocks. In Calcutta, he is isolated by his inability to understand Bengali, though he finds a group of street children and evades predatory adults.

In Tasmania with his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman as a well-meaning mother, David Wenham a supportive father), Saroo grows up as an Australian boy. He’s happy and apparently well adjusted, in contrast to the other boy the couple adopt, who shows the alternative point of view, as he is traumatised and destructive (Divian Ladwa). As the idea of tracing his background after 25 years grows, encouraged by his American girlfriend (Rooney Mara), Saroo increasingly sees flashbacks of his repressed memories and he is driven in his research on the newly available Google Earth.

The final resolution doesn’t disappoint. Director Garth Davis (Top of the Lake) handles the emotions in a way that is satisfying and unsentimental. We know how the story turns out, so the enjoyment is in the emotional relationship between Saroo and the two sets of parents that he loves, both the couple in Australia and his long-lost mother in India. Over the credits, it is fascinating to see the real people appear beside the actors who played them. It’s a triumphant story of good people and the human spirit.

Lion screens on 12, 13 and 15 October as the American Express Gala film at the BFI London Film Festival.


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