British actor Dev Patel (‘Slumdog Millionaire’) is all grown up and back in India for this real-life tearjerker about Saroo Brierley, who as a five-year-old was separated from his family in rural India and later adopted by an Australian family. In the first half we watch as Saroo falls asleep in an empty train carriage and then accidentally travels over 1,000 miles to Calcutta.
The film puts us up close to Saroo’s fear and sense of dislocation as he encounters various threats in the big city, from dangerous traffic to sexual predators. And it’s impossible not to melt in the presence of Sunny Pawar, who plays little Saroo. It’s this section of the film that’s the most powerful as director Garth Davis plunges us into the reality of the vast unfriendly metropolis, and cinematographer Greig Fraser (‘Zero Dark Thirty’, ‘Rogue One’) creates some memorable shots of the huge, unwelcoming city at night.
It’s later in the film that Patel steps into Saroo’s shoes. He’s now a twentysomething with a loving relationship with his adoptive parents (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), but who feels increasingly disturbed by his background and keen to reconnect with it. Patel gives a mature performance as the older Saroo, but the script isn’t on his side.
The screenplay by Luke Davies (who wrote the James Dean biopic ‘Life’) has too many loose ends to be properly convincing. How did Saroo actually use Google Earth to trawl through vast swathes of India? Why is Saroo’s relationship with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara) so underdeveloped? And surely more could have been said about his relationship with his less together brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), also adopted from India? There’s plenty of warmth and compassion here, and the true story is a belter, but this ‘Lion’ doesn’t quite roar.