Film Review: “Lion” — Lost, Found, and Lost

Lion’s heart is an exhilarating sequence where Saroo painstakingly discovers his origins.

Lion, directed by Garth Davis. Screening at Kendall Square Cinema, Somerville Theatre, and West Newton Cinema.

Dev Patel, whose Australian accent is flawless in "Lion."

Dev Patel, whose Australian accent is flawless in “Lion.”

By Peg Aloi

Director Garth Davis’ debut feature is an inspiring and uplifting story based on the memoir penned by Saroo Brierley, A Long Way Home. The film begins in rural India, where a poor family struggles to make ends meet. But they are happy and loving; five year old Saroo (played with charm and depth by Sunny Pawar) enjoys walks in nature with his brother and games with his mother.  Their existence has an idyllic quality, as if it was seen through the eyes of a young child. Saroo accompanies his older brother to the market place in rural India, where he must stay overnight on a park bench while his brother works. When his brother is late returning, Saroo seeks refuge in a train car, and ends up thousands of miles from home in Calcutta. Unable to speak the language there, and ignored when he asks for help ( because there are so many other homeless and orphaned children crowding the streets). Saroo manages to survive by stealing food and eating garbage; he is soon taken to an orphanage and later adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham).

Years go by, and Saroo has a happy and nurturing childhood. The Brierleys adopt another Indian child, Mantosh (played in youth by Keshav Jadhav, and later by British actor Divian Ladwah), a boy who has emotional problems. Saroo becomes an intelligent and outgoing teenager (played by Dev Patel); when he goes off to college a chance encounter with some Indian students sparks memories of his earlier life, triggering the ache and loss he had previously suppressed. His girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) notices how the few memories Saroo has of his youth trouble him; when he begins to manifest symptoms of stress she encourages him to learn more about where he came from. But, because Saroo was so young when he left home, he recalls little about where he lived and the identity of his family. He doesn’t know where to begin.

The film’s heart is an exhilarating sequence where Saroo painstakingly discovers his origins. He spends hours working at his computer, sleepless and increasingly frustrated. He has little to go on: only images of a handful of visual landmarks he remembers from long walks with his brother, and the name of his village, which turns out to be spelled phonetically, and is therefore somewhat useless. The sequence is brilliantly directed, and Davis (whose previous work includes episodes of the excellent New Zealand television series Top of the Lake (written and produced by Jane Campion) deserves praise for making the sterile Google Earth tool into a conduit for for pathos and triumph. The film’s climax is a welcomingly restrained reunion, based on real life, whose emotional palette ranges from grief to love.

Dev Patel’s performance is noteworthy because it is effectively understated. Most moveigoers are aware of Patel by way of breakout role in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, or perhaps it is his witty and winsome turn as the manager of the ‘grand hotel’ in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. British TV watchers, myself among them, may well know him through the controversial series about teenagers’ love and sex lives, Skins (the American remake was nowhere near as well done). Patel has matured, moving from his early roles as an awkward teen with an infectious smile to a versatile, appealing performer of impressive range and depth. He brings warmth and authenticity to his portrait of an exceptional young man whose scant remembrance of things past is richly rewarded.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for called The Witching Hour

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