Danny Boyle famously accredited his casting of Dev Patel in Slumdog Millionaire to his daughter, a fan of the TV series Skins in which Patel first made his name. As Anwar, a Pakistani teenage ne’er-do-well who only prayed five times a day to make up for his devout lifestyle of drug-taking and casual sex, Patel was an underwritten scene-stealer defined by a quiet difficulty to reconcile his Islamic faith with his enthusiasm for the group’s anarchic antics. Ten years later, Patel has carved out a solid and genre-crossing career of starring roles with The Man Who Knew Infinity, Chappie and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. But whether it was Anwar’s identity crisis specifically that caught Boyle’s attention or not, Patel has shepherded an innate gift for portraying nuance and contradiction in his characters to such natural effect. With this season’s Lion, he takes this to the next level with a role demanding not only an identity in crisis, but an identity haunted.
At only five years old, in the rural slums of India, Saroo is accidentally separated from his older brother Guddu and their family. Lost in the chaos and corruption of Calcutta, hundreds of miles from home, he is eventually just lucky enough to find himself in an orphanage, where he is adopted by Australian couple Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Twenty years on, Saroo (Dev Patel) has flourished under their care, but the family he left behind haunts him still, and soon begins a desperate search for the pieces of his past life.
There’s very little about Garth Davis’ feature debut as director that can be said without one word; haunting. Saroo’s story, an awe-inspiring true story with next-to-no creative license taken, is in a way a ghost story. Saroo is a person literally haunted by his past, and all the agonizing questions that anyone would chase in circles forever around their head were they in his position. Lion’s greatest triumph is that it doesn’t simply engage the audience with his turmoil: it actively puts you in it. His journey is our journey, and his ghosts become our unfinished business. The film takes the awful reality of Saroo’s childhood trauma and applies next-to-no creative license, because no dramatic contrivance is needed. His desperate experience plays out in full, vivid and harrowing fashion, and all of it executed to such intensely hair-raising effect. Dev Patel certainly delivers a career-high performance for Saroo’s adult years, but ultimately the film belongs to Sunny Pawar as the lost boy. It’s his part of the story that does all the heavy-lifting, and for a child actor to carry a film such as this to the extent that he does is nothing short of incredible. He doesn’t need a big crying scene, or to scream for his character’s mother and brother, to fully convey his slow descent into hopelessness and despair, but equally he doesn’t need to act jubilantly to capture the happiness Saroo finds with his new family. Pawar plays it soft and quiet, and so his performance hits the hardest and rings the loudest.
Lion is very much a story in two parts, to such extent that despite its standard two-hour run-time it ultimately feels more akin to a three-hour epic, so effectively does it capture Saroo’s long journey from home to home to home. In many ways, this is exactly the kind of compact yet comprehensive approach that so many of the major ‘two-part’ book-to-blockbuster adaptations shun, to their constant detriment. Watching Patel scour Google Earth to retrace his childhood wanderings, it’s somehow both difficult and easy to remember he is that same lost boy who fled from human traffickers, scavenged for food and slept on sheets of cardboard, so distant does his own past feel to the audience. The film goes to such tremendous efforts to fully flesh out both his lives in equal measure, aided not least by the supporting talents of Kidman and Rooney Mara as his college girlfriend, as well as an electric turn from Divian Ladwa as Saroo’s fellow adopted brother Mantosh (whose own torments are worn much more openly). How the questions that haunt him impact those he cares about, as well as his ability to be anything other than that ever-searching lost boy, is a constant tug at the heartstrings. At times, the intense focus on his pain does detract from a clearer understanding of the overall goings on in his life, but even this plays into the story’s tone of deep despair and desperation.
Awards season is no stranger to films billing themselves as ‘the incredible true story’ or ‘based on true events’, however vaguely. What sets Lion apart from the biopic herd is an uncompromising commitment to truth. Saroo’s story doesn’t need to take creative liberties, and the film has the confidence and the respect not to take them. The result: a tremendously powerful experience that speaks to the importance of family and human connection in all its forms, and shines a light on parts of the world where to lose such connections is to lose everything.
Final Score: 4.5/5