Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Lion is a film adapted from a remarkable true story that is both fantastical and strange. Director Garth Davis has succeeded in making an unforgettable film out of an unforgettable story.
Five-year-old Saroo (played by Sunny Pawar and later by Dev Petal) gets on the wrong train and is transported thousands of miles away from his home in Northern India to Kolkata, West Bengal. Saroo can only speak Hindi, he’s unable to communicate in the local language, Bengali, and has no idea where his home is. After weeks of living on the streets and avoiding various nefarious characters he is taken in by an orphanage. Eventually Saroo is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham) and grows up in Tasmania. Twenty-five years later, Saroo starts to search for his birth Mother using Google Earth.
Screenwriter Luke Davies leapt at the chance to adapt the book ‘Lion: A long way from home’, describing it as ‘an incredibly simple, primal fairy-tale or myth.’ He was determined to stay true to the story however admitted that this was challenging. In a recent interview he said with tongue in cheek: ‘It’s an American’s financier’s dream to begin a film with the first fifty minutes in Hindi and English subtitles, with a five-year-old non-professional actor.’
Nevertheless, Davis made these fifty minutes fly by. The cinematography is quite literally breathtaking. The opening credits incorporate aerial shots of Tasmania and this inversion of perspective immediately makes the usually familiar landscapes of Australia beguiling. This allows the viewer to get a hint of how disorientated Saroo would have felt being thrown into one new landscape after the next.
Davis has an extraordinary ability to create character interactions which succinctly convey the complexity of family dynamics, socioeconomics, and societal and cultural conventions without relying on clunky exposition. This focus on character ensures that we quickly become emotionally invested in Saroo’s welfare. Through some sequences of daily life, Davis informs the viewer of Saroo’s impoverished circumstances and there is no sense of judgement in Davis’ film-making. He makes small, mundane interactions poignant.
Davis has spoken about his desire to do the story justice and spent lengthy periods in India retracing Saroo’s journey. This attention to detail has resulted in the riveting train journey that culminates in the cacophony and confusion of Kolkata.
Lion is Davis’ first feature film, he originally trained as a fine artist before moving into commercials. Davis has won an incredible slew of awards for his cinematography including the 2008 Gold Lion at Cannes for a Schweppes commercial. Davis went on to win an Emmy for directing the television series ‘Top of the Lake’ alongside Jane Campion.
Davis spent five months searching for the right actor to play Saroo which was time well spent because the five-year-old Sunny Pawar is exceptional. His performance is heart wrenching; capturing the trauma of being lost and vulnerable. Pawar’s ability to express pain and confusion is so raw that there were times I had to look away from the screen. It is remarkable that Pawar had no previous acting experience and hadn’t even seen a feature film before the watching the final cut of Lion.
Like his character, Pawar only speaks Hindi, so Davis set up a rehearsal space to allow all the actors to connect. The relationships between each character are layered and complex, something each actor attributes to the time that they spent in the rehearsal room. Kidman explains that you ‘can’t fast-track’ relationship building especially with children, she had to gain Pawar’s trust to be able to do a scene in which she bathes him, but these moments of human connection deliver a stunning pay-off. Kidman also has a deep connection with Dev Patel who plays the older Saroo, as they share silences and exchange looks which are drenched in sub-context and pent up emotion.
Rooney Mara, who plays Saroo’s partner Lucy, describes Davis’ focus on getting actors to do things that ‘they had never done before’ in the rehearsal space. Rooney recalls acting as animals and completing the now infamous New York Times ‘Love questionnaire’ with Patel — 36 questions designed to help people fall in love.
There is also the question of whether two people who play the same role—the five-year-old and thirty-year-old version of Saroo—can be completely convincing and fully-formed versions of the character. Yet there is a magical cohesiveness in their performances which Patel puts down to excellent direction, saying: ‘Garth does a subliminal job of grounding us all in the same energy.’
Let’s not forget the role Google Earth plays in the story. Davis was conscious of this, stating, “It was finding the right balance of the big cinema ‘no-no,’ which is that screens on screens is not good…The relationship with the technology was instigated by a purely and deeply emotional drive and desire to make it to the end of the myth – to find wholeness with the reunification with the lost mother and to find out who you are.”
Dev Patel describes Lion as ‘an anthem of love’and it’s hard to disagree. Davis shows us in this film the heart of each relationship which makes Lion a must-see film.
To be released: January 19th 2017
Running time: 118 minutes