True story. In 1986 an Indian urchin known as Saroo was torn away from his home and only 25 years later, with the help of Google Earth, was he was able to retrace his steps.
His Australian adoptive mother, Sue Brierley, worried about what Saroo would find (she suspected he’d been sent away on purpose, so the family would have one less mouth to feed). In fairytales such as Hansel and Gretel impoverished parents aren’t always parental. In real life? Well, you’ll have to wait and see.
The first half is so vivid it hurts. One day five-year-old Saroo (newcomer Sunny Pawar, sweet as a popsicle) curls up in a train. When he opens his eyes the train is moving and only stops when, 994 miles later, it reaches Calcutta. The city’s delights, as well as dangers, are captured by acclaimed Australian cinematographer Greig Fraser. Every young face is expressive, while predatory grown-ups, like Robert Mitchum’s in The Night of the Hunter, loom and lunge like impassive beasts.
That it all happens so quickly adds to the (magical) realism. In an orphanage, Saroo watches gravely as an older boy is dragged off by a bunch of men. The boy is almost certainly about to be raped but the film-makers don’t labour the point. There’s simply no time to grieve.
Things go down in the second half. Now living in Tasmania, with adoptive parents Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham), our hero (Dev Patel, far more nuanced than in Slumdog Millionaire) is a big, apparently breezy Aussie. He’s the polar opposite of his adopted brother, the self-harming, cynical Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) yet both boys are clearly lost and, bravely, Lion suggests they’re not the only ones with demons.
Sue is the child of an alcoholic and, in a dinner-table scene, director Garth Davis (a big fan of John Cassavetes) plugs us into the tension beneath her smile. When Saroo insults Mantosh, Sue resembles a malfunctioning robot. In the past few years, Kidman has shuffled dutifully through a string of blah films. It’s great to see her stretched.
Not everything works. As the posters suggest, Saroo has a love interest, Lucy (Rooney Mara). Unfortunately, the character (who isn’t based on a real figure; Saroo had various lovers during this period) is wishy-washy to the max. Google Earth has blind spots and so does Lion. Still, it covers an awful lot of ground and the views are stunning.
Review by Charlotte O'Sullivan, Evening Standard