Role of Sa­roo in “Lion” might be Dev Pa­tel’s best per­for­mance

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Stephanie Merry

“Lion” is based on one of those sto­ries that’s al­most too in­cred­i­ble to be true. As a young boy grow­ing up in a poor vil­lage in In­dia dur­ing the 1980s, Sa­roo Bri­er­ley got lost nearly 1,000 miles from home with no way to re­trace his steps. Even­tu­ally adopted by an Aus­tralian cou­ple, he be­came ob­sessed decades later with track­ing down his birth fam­ily us­ing Google Earth.

Bri­er­ley’s book about his quest, “A Long Way Home,” is ide­ally suited for the screen — with or with­out the seam­less prod­uct place­ment.

Luke Davies adapted the mem­oir for the screen, sep­a­rat­ing the story into two dis­tinct halves. The movie is nec­es­sar­ily more har­row­ing dur­ing its first chap­ter with the re­mark­able Sunny Pawar play­ing a 5-year-old Sa­roo. Things go awry one night af­ter the lit­tle boy ven­tures out to help his brother make some money but ends up on an out-of-ser­vice train that chugs its way to Kolkata. Pawar is only 8, but he’s a spir­ited, adorable young actor ca­pa­ble of trans­mit­ting the depths of de­spair when it be­comes clear he may never see his fam­ily again, since he doesn’t even know the name of his vil­lage.

Dev Pa­tel picks up the ba­ton to play the older Sa­roo. By that point, he’s a tor­tured soul who woos a girl­friend (Rooney Mara) only to ne­glect her by spend­ing all of his time on his com­puter search­ing for a tiny spot on a map. This may be Pa­tel’s best per­for­mance, and he was nom­i­nated for a Golden Globe for the role of a man who isn’t en­tirely sure who he is.

Dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion with new ac­quain­tances, he ex­plains that he’s from Kolkata. “What part?” an In­dian man asks him. “I’m adopted — I’m not re­ally In­dian,” he ex­plains, al­though he doesn’t seem en­tirely con­vinced. Soon af­ter that, he be­gins hav­ing flash­backs to long-for­gotten mem­o­ries that he hopes might help him find his way back home.

Ni­cole Kid­man also was nom­i­nated for a Golden Globe for play­ing Sa­roo’s mother, Sue. It’s well-de­served: She’s stunning and shat­ter­ing as a slightly over­pro­tec­tive ma­tri­arch whose patience and com­pas­sion know no lim­its. She has her hands full with Sa­roo’s brother, Man­tosh (Di­vian Ladwa), who has psy­cho­log­i­cal wounds from child­hood that may never heal. But her frus­tra­tion never out­weighs her ten­der­ness.

Where the first half of the movie is a nail-biter, as Sa­roo teeters on the edge of dan­ger, barely es­cap­ing mul­ti­ple adults with ne­far­i­ous in­ten­tions, the sec­ond has a harder time keeping its mo­men­tum. In­ter­nal jour­neys are more dif­fi­cult to cap­ture, and di­rec­tor Garth Davis strug­gles to make Sa­roo’s ob­ses­sive com­puter search as thrilling as his at­tempts to sur­vive on the streets of Kolkata. If the pac­ing feels off, the film’s re­mark­able con­clu­sion more than makes up for it.

Tech­ni­cally, the movie is a mar­vel with gor­geous cin­e­matog­ra­phy by Greig Fraser (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Fox­catcher”) and an aching score by Dustin O’Hal­lo­ran and Haushka, who are also up for a Golden Globe.

“Lion” is a com­plex movie, with its pro­found themes of home and iden­tity, and its tonally dis­parate halves. A smartly un­der­stated ap­proach to Bri­er­ley’s story holds it all to­gether. Some­times the truth alone is enough.

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