REVIEW: 'Lion' roars with strong performances
"Lion" has one of those plot lines that feels like a Hollywood screenplay — except it actually happened. It's told, in Garth Davis' heart-tugging movie, in two parts. The first half involves an enchanting 5-year-old boy named Saroo (Sunny Pawar, irresistible), who accidentally becomes separated from his brother at a rural India train station and boards a train that takes him thousands of miles from his home. After living on the streets, he is eventually adopted by a kind Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). In the film's second half, a now-adult Saroo (Dev Patel), living happily in Australia but haunted by faint memories of a family far away, tries desperately to piece together what happened to him — and to find his way home again.
It's a mesmerizing story, particularly that vivid first half, told with great economy and few words. Other than crying for his mother and brother (his scream of "Help me!," from an empty train, rips into the heart), this child is quiet; speaking through his wide eyes as he enters a strange new world. We see the dangers, as the camera takes his point of view; Saroo, mercifully, does not. To us, he seems desperately small and vulnerable; but something in the way this child carries himself implies an inner strength — one that we see later in Patel's Saroo, a man at times overwhelmed by the weight of remembering.
And while Rooney Mara's talents are wasted in an underwritten girlfriend role, "Lion" also showcases a moving performance by Kidman, who with little screen time shows us a woman falling in love, instantly and forever, with the lost boy from afar. Gently, she strokes his hair, gazing at him, wondering what story lies behind those frightened eyes. "One day," she murmurs, "you'll tell me all about it." And, one day, he does.
3.5 out of 4 stars
• Cast: Dev Patel, Nicole Kidman, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Sunny Pawar.
• Directed by Garth Davis, from a screenplay by Luke Davies, based on the memoir "A Long Way Home" by Saroo Brierley.
• 118 minutes.
• Rated PG-13 for thematic material and some sensuality.