From Mother India to Google Earth

Lion
Directed by Garth Davis
Written by Luke Davies, based on the book by Saroo Brierley
Rated PG, 118 minutes
3.5 stars

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Truly, Charles Dickens could not have written a more perfectly strange story than that of Saroo Brierley, the little Indian boy lost on a train who has to find his way home again, 25 years later.

And truly, there was probably no way to make it anything but the tearjerker it becomes in the final reel – because that is what happened. That new Australian director Garth Davis holds the dam-burst of emotions at bay so long is to his credit. It’s perhaps less manipulative than unstoppable, like the train that took the boy in the first place. And yet, it feels like a film of two halves – one half to take the five-year old boy on an odyssey he cannot comprehend; the other to bring him back, as a young adult who understands too much. The first story has such simple beauty that you don’t want it to end; the second has so much pain that less might have been more.

That pain is also Dickensian, but the picture tends to dwell when it needs to rocket. Star-casting may explain some of that. Nicole Kidman’s performance as Saroo’s adoptive mother Sue feels at times like her emotions come crashing in, demanding to be heard. In comparison, David Wenham, as the boy’s adoptive father John, occupies barely enough of the movie to let us see how he coped. That may just be accurate: Sue Brierley decided she wanted to adopt a child after seeing a vision of herself standing next to a brown baby. Fertility was not the issue.

For those few who might not have heard the story yet: in 1986, five-year-old Sheru (Sunny Pawar) is growing up in a desperately poor family in a dusty village in central India. His father has left, his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose) can barely feed her four children. Older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) goes out at night to find or steal food. Sheru begs to go with him to the train station, where they scrounge for coins. The boys separate and Sheru falls asleep in an empty carriage. When he wakes, the train is moving and he can’t escape. Days later it arrives at Howrah Station in Calcutta, the doorway to his nightmare. He cannot speak Bengali and no-one understands him; he can’t spell his name or that of his village. There are dangers at every turn. After living rough for months, he’s detained in an orphanage that is another circle of hell. That is how he ends up being adopted by the Brierleys and brought to Hobart.

Sunny Pawar, playing young Sheru, is quite exceptional. Garth Davis tells this part of the tale with delicacy and classic technique, surrounding the child with huge spaces and people who might be angels or devils. Our identification with his plight becomes complete. When he arrives in Hobart, he has lived through enough trauma for three lives. The Brierleys are careful and caring; they adopt another Indian boy, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav), who’s even more damaged. They struggle forward together. We leap ahead 20 years and Saroo (Dev Patel) is now at university. He pretends he’s fine, but his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) can see he’s not. When a classmate shows him to use Google Earth, he begins an obsessive search for his home village, the name of which is as garbled in his memory as his own.

This computer-based part of the story makes it even stranger, modernising the drama by obliterating the idea of distance. For the first time in human history, such a search becomes possible, just when this troubled young man needs it most.

Dev Patel grabs this role with both hands. Apart from his flawless Australian accent, he brings discipline to Saroo’s crack-up. That’s important to carry us through the thickets of cultural dissonance and pain. Luke Davies’ elegant script throws everything at him, then Garth Davis piles on more. The payoff cannot be anything but huge, a great flood of emotion. Best bring a towel.