By Richard von Busack
Imagine being lost at age 4 and waking up in a train station on seemingly the other end of the earth, where no one speaks your language. Lion adapts Saroo Brierley’s memoir of an unimaginable childhood nightmare, resolved with the sturdy help of Google Earth … and there is truth to the oft-repeated comment that the film is sort of a feature-film-length commercial for the search engine. Garth Davis directs this story of a rural Indian boy (played in youth by Sunny Pawar) who fell asleep as a stowaway. The boy ended up a thousand miles away in Kolkata. He was one more urchin in a city already full of street kids, and the name of the very small town he came from drew a blank with the local authorities. After a time in a dangerous shelter, he was adopted by a couple from coastal Tasmania. Saroo grew up in affluence, still plagued by the thought of the family he left behind.
Davis, primarily an Australian television director, seems to keep a loose hand on the actors, giving them room. As the adult Saroo, the steadily rising Dev Patel holds the screen with ease. He stands his ground even against the intense acting of Divian Ladwa, who plays his deeply troubled foster-brother. Commonly a pair of icebergs in the movies, Rooney Mara (as Saroo’s girlfriend in Melbourne) and Nicole Kidman (as his adoptive mom) are unusually warm and touching. One never sees Mara this playful, this willing to do a little dance on a night sidewalk. Kidman is at first the perfect kind of mom, who always knows how to say the right thing. In one scene she reveals her own past, and a William Blake-like vision she had when she was a child. Then Kidman’s performance is complete: It’s like a trapdoor opening to reveal the mysteriousness of motherhood.
Photographer Greig Fraser’s landscapes of Saroo’s two worlds are extremely handsome. One feels that the remarkable story has been tarted up a little, though—there was enough Dickens in it already, even before the scenes of how Saroo narrowly evades being pimped out as a child. True or not, it doesn’t play true—there’s a gloss all over this movie that keeps us at a respectful distance.