Saroo Brierley’s memoir A Long Way Home examines, in its uncertain prose, one of the signal concerns of our age: How do those of us who have grown up in relative comfort square our good luck with the lot of the rest of the world? That question gets feinted at in Garth Davis’ lavish, lopsided Lion, a film as accomplished in its moment-to-moment excitement and emotion-stirring as Brierley’s book isn’t. Brierley was born in a small Indian town, then lost at the age of 5 in Kolkata, and at last adopted and raised by a pair of well-heeled Aussies. He returned to India to find his birth family a quarter century after he had gone missing, and the sorrow of those years — and the guilt of having been given a life of plenty and opportunity denied to them — haunts A Long Way Home.
In Lion, it’s mentioned a couple times.
Commercial filmmaking still fumbles interiority and moral complexity. So it’s fortunate for the filmmakers that Brierley’s book also is thick with the kinds of things that crowdpleasers ace. Here’s a globe-trotting boy-on-his-own adventure, a narrative of scrappy survival and familial love and many teary reconciliations, tracing the outlines of Brierley’s life in a busy two hours.
Five-year-old Brierley got separated from his older brother at a train station near their remote village. The plucky kid — played by Sunny Pawar with trembling eyes and steely charm — holes up in out-of-service train to sleep, but awakens locked in and barreling east. When the doors at last open, 1600 kilometers later, young Saroo must fight through a crowd of Kolkata commuters; they speak Bengali and he speaks Hindi, a disorientation that the film doesn’t at first effectively illustrate. (Davis is Australian, and Lion, while often subtitled, is an Australian, English, and American production.) Davis dashes us through a dispiriting one-note montage of everyday folks brushing poor Saroo off at the new train station, shoving and sometimes even striking him — it happens so quickly, and with so little context, that the people seem hateful rather than jaded. They don’t ignore Saroo; they harrow him.
Still, the lost-in-India scenes prove compelling, often scary and beautiful at once, especially whenever Saroo is in flight. Saroo lights out over bridges and through yellow-glaring station tunnels. There’s offhand majesty in a steady shot, from a distance, of him dashing down the stairs of a block of flats, fleeing sex traffickers. Like Dickens or Spielberg, Davis is better at children facing fears than at adults contemplating nuance.
Each act of kindness Saroo meets comes as a surprise. The first two depend on small gestures or pantomime, each a reminder of the timelessness of the drama and the technique — since the kinetoscope, the movies have won our tears with the silent decency of the down and out. These do little to prepare Saroo for the singular kindness he experiences, coming after months in a Kolkata orphanage: his adoption by Australians played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham. Even when Saroo is at last in their home, he can’t quite believe it. The way his eyes light up at the contents of their refrigerator says more than any speech could.
But there’s still lots of movie to go. In the lurching third act, in which Saroo is all hunkily grown up (played by Dev Patel) and trying to reconcile his impoverished first years with his upwardly mobile Australian life, I found myself wishing the movie would either add a half-hour to its running time to flesh out the platoon of new characters or just skip ahead to the inevitable waterworks. Rooney Mara appears in the final chunk as an American love interest for Saroo in a hospitality management program; she and Patel are capably swoony with each other, but Lion has so much story to get to — and big questions to gloss — that the couple goes from flirting to breaking up before we’ve even understood how they fit each other. (Saroo searches Google Earth all night for the hometown whose name he’s forgotten; Mara’s Lucy, like the wives or girlfriends of so many male movie protagonists, is reduced to pleading, “You can’t go on like this!”)
Kidman gets some strong mother’s-love monologues, but by the end Lion is in such a hurry to get Saroo back to India that his reconciliation with one major character, his adopted brother, actually plays out with that character fully asleep. Who needs to hear about the complex emotions of troubled adults, both born in India and adapting to life in Australia? There’s a big, huggy ending coming!