A five-year-old Indian boy falls asleep on an out-of-service train, which doesn't stop until it reaches Kolkata, some 1,600 km to the east. He is desperate to find a way to return home to his beloved mother and brother Guddu but he can't speak the local language and is only able to offer minimal details about his home. After living on the streets, he is taken to an orphanage and eventually adopted by an Australian couple, and grows up to be happy and successful. But he is haunted by half-remembered dreams of his Indian family and, some 20 years after leaving India, begins the Sisyphean task of searching for his hometown using Google Earth.
The phrase 'based on an incredible true story' gets thrown around a lot by film promoters and yet the story of Saroo Brierley, the subject of Garth Davis's film Lion, is so remarkable — so unlikely — that it's hard to believe someone didn't make it up. Lion is sometimes painful, but also compelling, warm and very emotional — there was nary a dry eye in the screening I attended last night.
Dev Patel stars as the adult Saroo but we don't see him on screen until at least a third of the way through. Instead, Sunny Pawar takes centre stage as the young Saroo and he's in pretty much every scene during the film's first act. Pawar is terrific and he holds his own against much older actors. Patel convinces too as the older Saroo, conveying the character's emotional struggle between wanting to keep his Australian family happy and his deep, inner need to find his hometown and his Indian family. Nicole Kidman, as Saroo's adoptive mother, and Rooney Mara, as Lucy (a composite of several of the real Saroo's girlfriends), are solid in their supporting roles, although neither gets much screen time, despite their top billings. Kidman, in particular, puts in a sensitive and nuanced performance a Sue Brierley.
Couple these performances with Luke Davies's thoughtful screenplay (based on Brierley's memoir, A Long Way Home), Greig Fraser's stunning cinematography, and Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O'Halloran's lilting, haunting score and you get a thoroughly enjoyable and moving film.