Directed by Garth Davis
Screenplay by Luke Davies
Adapted from the book A LONG WAY HOME by Saroo Brierley
Music by Volker Bertelmann and Dustin O’Halloran
Cinematography by Greig Fraser
Film Editing by Alexandre de Franceschi
Casting by Kirsty McGregor
In 1986, Sapoo Brierley begged his older brother Guddu to take him along as he left for a week to find night work in another town. His brother, who adored him, finally gave in and they left their mother and little sister and the rural area where they lived in poverty, but happily as a family. Along the way, Sapoo wanders off and becomes trapped in a decommissioned train which carries him 1500 km away before he can escape. From that point on his life is just running, trying to scrape together food, and running again. An endless and exhausting nightmare for an adult, watching this happening to a child of five is heartbreaking. (And it makes me wonder whether the people of Calcutta really do treat lone children like that. If so, what the hell?)
Eventually, he is taken off the streets and placed in an orphanage, where the Brierleys of Australia see him and want very much to adopt him. And so begins his new life with a new loving family and the details of his original family become harder to remember with every day, but never leave him completely. Over the next twenty-four years he grows from the frightened child to strong man with the love of a supportive woman and a family that accepts him completely and loves him whatever his decisions. Unfortunately, the Brierleys opened their hearts to another Indian orphan who turned to to be one of the more damaged children. That damage would follow him throughout his twisted life and cause his new family endless heartache as they constantly try in vain to help him as he digs himself deeper into the sewer. Sue Brierley would never be the happy, optimistic woman she had been again.
Lion is up for six Academy Awards, but it deserves far more nominations. All of the performances are so true, actors disappear not into characters but into the people. The feeling is of watching all of this as it transpires. The sensation of being in a theatre fades away,
Trapped in a moving train, screaming for help at every stop, being carried farther and farther away. To where? Five-year-old Sapoo, so frightened, so alone, a tiny figure lost in a vast, uncaring world. The terror in palpable and the desire to reach out and help in some way leaves the viewer feeling helpless. And why is this? Sunny Pawar. How a child that age can just become another person is astonishing. There is not an instant in his large chunk of the film when he is anything but Sapoo Brierlry. It should surprise no one that he has won awards and been nominated for more; it is surprising that the Oscars passed him over. (Not as shocking as Amy Adams’ heartstopping appearance in the best film of the year, Arrival.) His agony ends only when a loving family in Australia adopts Sapoo.
Twenty-four years later Sapoo is living a very different life with the Brierleys, experiencing unconditional love and laughter and despair as his adopted drags the family, especially his mother down. I knew Dev Patel is in the cast but I was still waiting for him to appear in the film. In the meantime, I was impressed with the very attractive man inhabiting in the body of Sapoo, messy-sexy hair and becoming beard that get longer and wilder as the story progresses– Dev Patel. The tall, gawky boy whose very body was a sight gag in the Best Exotic Marigold movies is gone. In his place, a handsome, broad-shouldered figure with the body of a leading man, a face that has weathered some years and is only more mature for it — here what we wondered would come from that hyperactive teenager in Slumdog Millionaire if he was still around. He is still here and this Oscar-nominated performance may be his best yet, but I doubt it will be his best ever.
There are going to be comments about Nicole Kidman’s hairstyle in Lion and, yes, it is distracting at first, but this is based on Sapoo Brierley’s A LONG WAY HOME, so it was important to get details like Sue Brieley’s appearance correct wherever possible. Of course, Nicole Kidman is up for Best Supporting Actress for this role and it is easy to see what the Academy saw. As Sue, Kidman goes from the bright, loving woman who wanted nothing more than to be a mother to this little, bewildered boy who doesn’t understand a word of all the strangers around him. She radiates enough exuberance and love to make any barrier insignificant. Sue, Sapoo, and his new father John (Wenham) become a family everyone would want to join. No, not everyone. And there comes the disintegration of KIdman’s character’s sunny and optimistic nature.
The Brierley’s dream had always been to adopt to little Indian boys. Some dreams are better left unrealised. The film doesn’t shy away from portraying the end product of living on the streets, starving, being abused in every way possible, living in constant fear is shown in the broken children in the orphanage. It seems only fair the orphanage should had told the Brierleys how damaged little Mantosh (Jadav) truly was before allowing them to connect with him. Perhaps they did, but it was the beginning of Sue’s own damage, as the sunny disposition was replaced by tears and tension as Mantosh grew up to be an angry, broken man who took every wrong road and blamed everyone else for his downfall, especially his successful brother. It is painful to see Kidman’s portrayal of a woman of pure light bent beyond the point of return, living in the uncertain darkness every day. It is a performance that stays with you and becomes more powerful upon reflection.
Chameleon Rooney Mara is wonderful as a sometimes goofy, sometimes intense young woman deeply in love with Sapoo. It is delightful to watch her embrace his family, his culture, and every little piece of him. Every piece. But he hasn’t told her piece. There is one thing that he hasn’t told anyone and it is about to pull him away from the people he loves in Australia, because he is obsessed with finding the home he left almost twenty-five years ago and then vanished off the face of the Earth. He wants to see that family again. To tell his mum and his big brother Gundu and little sister Shekila that he is alive and never forgot them. But he feels he cannot share this search with the family who raised him and he adores and the woman he loves and this puts a distance between all of them that none really understands.
Sitting in a theatre seat watching Lion cannot compare to the harrowing journey five-year-old Sapoo was forced to stumble along to survive. It is nothing compared to the pain of opening a vein to share this story on the page. Still, the film takes us on an odyssey itself. The action and the acting is too real to feel like fiction; at times, it has that uncomfortable feeling of watching a documentary where you cannot understand why the filmmakers do not intervene at some points. I wanted to push into the crowd and starts swinging at the people who pushed and slapped a lost child at a train station instead of realising he needed help.
But, I’ll let you take that journey yourself. You know the story, but there is so much more to it that needs to be seen. And, I think we all need to see it, to open our eyes to some things. Go on.