~★★★ 1/2 ~
I wasn't holding out much hope for Lion. I was ready to relegate it to the competent-yet-mediocre, 'feel-good schmaltz' sub-genre bin, alongside such stinkers like 2015's The Martian (★★). But I was wrong about Lion: it was decent.
The film is about Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a young Indian boy who becomes trapped on a coal train that takes him thousands of miles from his home village, and his mother (Priyanka Bose) and older brother (Abishek Bharate), to Calcutta. Unable to get home, he lives on the streets, before being taken to an orphanage where he is eventually adopted by an Australian couple, Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who raise him as their son in Hobart. Twenty years later, the grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) suffers an identity crisis and falls into a slump that even his supportive family and girlfriend (Rooney Mara) can't shake him out of. India calls to him, and with the aid of Google Maps, he manages to locate his home village.
Amongst the many highlights of Lion were the completely natural performances by the child actors, chiefly Sunny Pawar who stole every scene. Child actor performances are often nauseating, especially those by spoilt children of Hollywood producers with their unrealistically good diction and overall precociousness, but Pawar was totally sincere, as was Abishek Bharate as his brother. Dev Patel alternated skilfully between charming and brooding and Nicole Kidman was solid as the flustered, well-meaning Sue Brierly. I don’t know why they cast David Wenham – a terrific actor – in such a small supporting role as Saroo’s congenial adoptive father, but he did a fine job with what he had.
For all its charms, Lion is often emotionally manipulative. I blubbed twice. The first time was during the first act, set in Calcutta, when it was implied that the orphans were abused. When one child was taken away during the night, his screams were gently smothered by a lullaby about the stars the children sung to themselves. I had to bite my tongue and look away from the screen to stop myself from openly weeping. The second time was at the emotional dénouement, but by then everyone else in the theatre was sniffling, so I thought it rude not to join in. After the credits rolled, I turned to my friend, emotionally drained, and said 'well, that's never happened to me before', as though I had disappointed him sexually. Secretly I was glad that I had a humanising film experience.