In Moving “Lion,” Dev Patel Roars

[Note: This review also appeared on Film Festival Today.]

Lion

Lion (Garth Davis, 2016)

Based on the memoir A Long Way Home, by Saroo Brierley, Lion tells the tale of how Brierley, born in extreme poverty in India, came to be adopted, as a young child, by a childless Australian couple. Over 20 years after leaving his homeland, Brierley meets Indians his own age, and at a dinner party finds himself transported back to his early life by the smells of their cooking. Unable to rest easy, since the conjured memories remind him that he is no orphan, but rather someone who got lost and was placed in foster care by the state, Saroo goes in search of the mother and brother he left behind. The journey on which he embarks brings rewards both profound and bittersweet. In the title role, Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire) makes Saroo a vibrant and sympathetic protagonist, delivering a moving performance that is one of the best of the year.

The film, itself, is not always up to Patel’s level, but it is mostly competently made, with beautiful cinematography courtesy of Greg Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty), whose opening shots of a little child playing in a cloud of butterflies sets a dreamscape tone for the innocence soon to be lost. This is director Garth Davis’ debut feature, and his lack of experience sometimes shows in the occasionally awkward scene transitions, overuse of sentimental music where none is required and (intentionally?) blatant advertising for Google Earth. Fortunately, the power of the story is such that these minor flaws do not detract from its emotional impact. But really, this is a movie to see for Patel, who owns every scene in which he appears.

Additional members of the ensemble include Nicole Kidman (Stoker) and David Wenham (300: Rise of an Empire) as the adoptive Australians, Rooney Mara (Carol) as the adult Saroo’s girlfriend, and the amazing newcomer Sunny Pawar as the child version of our hero. The first part of the film belongs to this preternaturally talented young thespian, who brilliantly registers sadness, terror and pluck when an accidental journey across a continent separates him from his biological mother.  Overall, this is a film well worth seeing, sure to make you cry from sadness and joy in equal measure. Whatever issues I may have with the mise-en-scène, I was still deeply affected by the drama, and I expect others to be, as well. Happy Holidays!

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