DI­REC­TOR Garth Davis CAST Sunny Pawar, Dev Pa­tel, Rooney Mara, Nicole Kid­man, David Wen­ham

PLOT The true story of Sa­roo Bri­er­ley (Pawar), who was sep­a­rated from his fam­ily as a child and adopted by a Tas­ma­nian cou­ple (Kid­man, Wen­ham). As an adult, Sa­roo (Pa­tel) uses Google Earth to lo­cate his home.

IT’S AN ALMOST univer­sal child­hood mem­ory: you go out with a par­ent, per­haps to a su­per­mar­ket, carnival or sports event. Then you sud­denly re­alise you’ve mis­laid them. They were there a few mo­ments ago, their hand wrapped around yours, but some­thing caught your eye and now the hand you’ve just clutched be­longs to a stranger. You look up and find your­self in a tow­er­ing for­est of un­known adults and you’ve never felt more lost, alone, vul­ner­a­ble and scared.

For his fea­ture de­but, Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Garth Davis (Bafta-nom­i­nated for his work on 2013 crime-mys­tery se­ries Top Of The Lake) has adapted a real-life story which takes that feel­ing and in­ten­si­fies it a thou­sand­fold.

Even if you haven’t read Sa­roo Bri­er­ley’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy A Long Way Home, it doesn’t hurt to know how the story ends or the de­tails of his life. Lion is more of an emo­tional odyssey than a plot-driven film, and Davis (work­ing with Luke Davies’ script) un­fuss­ily halves the run­ning time be­tween child and adult Sa­roo. Thank­fully lack­ing a spoon-feed­ing voice-over or lazy fram­ing de­vice, his tale is al­lowed to un­furl nat­u­rally and grad­u­ally, ex­pe­ri­ence by ex­pe­ri­ence, so you feel each mo­ment as di­rectly and keenly as pos­si­ble.

Which isn’t to say Lion is a dif­fi­cult watch. Far from it. Davis and cin­e­matog­ra­pher Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty, Fox­catcher) some­how im­bue Sa­roo’s world — even the slums of Cal­cutta — with a del­i­cate, mag­i­cal qual­ity that in no way ster­ilises the re­al­ity of the drama. And, por­trayed in in­fancy by as­ton­ish­ing dis­cov­ery Sunny Pawar, the young Sa­roo beams with a strength and de­ter­mi­na­tion that makes you mar­vel at his re­source­ful­ness as much as you fear for his well-be­ing. Though his ac­ci­den­tal train jour­ney takes him to a strange land 1,600 km away from home, where the Hindi-speak­ing boy doesn’t even un­der­stand the lan­guage (Ben­gali), he is quick to adapt and driven by a deep-rooted con­fi­dence that some­day, some­how, he will find a way back to his mum. This isn’t some jaunty kids’ ad­ven­ture, but nei­ther is it a gru­elling or­deal.

Lion’s im­pact does soften dur­ing its sec­ond half, just as its pace slack­ens. As you’d ex­pect, watch­ing an adult, Aus­tralian Sa­roo (Pa­tel) ob­ses­sively scan Google Earth for his In­dian birth home is in­her­ently less grip­ping than the street-based tri­als of his five-year-old in­car­na­tion. But the story also shifts down a gear to be­come a do­mes­tic drama about adop­tion and iden­tity. While it’s ably han­dled, it rests in this mode for a lit­tle too long, hold­ing us back from a cir­cle-com­plet­ing res­o­lu­tion that, when it fi­nally ar­rives, feels a lit­tle too brisk.

That said, Pa­tel turns in a ca­reer-best per­for­mance which fi­nally de­liv­ers on his early

Slum­dog Mil­lion­aire prom­ise, while Kid­man is the most im­pres­sive she’s been in years — since

The Hours, in fact — in the rel­a­tively mi­nor role of Sa­roo’s Aus­tralian mother, Sue. Her per­for­mance dur­ing one short but ex­cru­ci­at­ing din­ner-ta­ble scene is a mini act­ing masterclass.

So, de­spite its lat­ter-half sag, Lion is a tri­umphant de­but for Davis. In one sense it’s epic, cap­tur­ing an amaz­ing life di­vided be­tween two very dif­fer­ent worlds; but it main­tains an in­ti­macy with Sa­roo that is so en­gag­ing, you can’t help but feel lost with him — and also pro­foundly glad to have found him.

VER­DICT An as­ton­ish­ing true story that’s treated with an ad­mirably light and artis­tic touch, rather than an overly dra­matic heavy hand. De­spite a weaker sec­ond half, it is ul­ti­mately deeply mov­ing.

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