Five-year-old Saroo gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of Kilometers across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination, and a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home.
Imagine for a moment you're five years old, living in horrible poverty, spending your days foraging for food and scrounging for money with the older brother you worship. And imagine one night you accompany him, against his better judgment, on one of his junkets to make some spare change. It's late and you become tired, so you catch a few ZZZs on a bench at a deserted train station. After trying unsuccessfully to sufficiently rouse you, your frustrated brother decides to go off and do his work and leave you behind to rest. He tells you not to move from the bench and that he'll be back before long. When you awake later and he's not there, you begin to worry and go looking for him. You board an empty train and wander through the barren cars calling his name. No response. You fall asleep once again, and this time when you wake, the train is moving, speeding away from your town, your home, and your family. On and on and on it goes for hours and hours, across the entire country, stopping infrequently, but never picking up any passengers. You're trapped like a prisoner, unable to escape, your incessant cries for help going unanswered. At last, you arrive in a city and the doors finally open, freeing you. But where are you? The environment is foreign, the language is different, no one understands you, and no one knows you are utterly alone and totally and completely lost. You have no money, no food, no support from anyone, you're scared to death, and you have no idea how to get back home. You are FIVE YEARS OLD!!!
Amazingly, this is a true story, and it's only the very beginning of an incredible tale that spans three decades and two continents. And director Garth Davis and screenwriter Luke Davies tell it oh-so-well in Lion, a joint Indian-Australian production that received a Best Picture Oscar nomination this year, as well as five other well-deserved nods. Amid all the hubbub surrounding La La Land and Moonlight, Lion - like its main character - got kind of lost, but it's too fine a film and too moving a tale to recede into the woodwork. Passion, warmth, and a healthy dose of realism pervade this marvel of a movie that celebrates the myriad ties that bind, and their enduring, invulnerable strength.
The journey of young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), who strays from the ramshackle abode he shares with his mother, older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), and younger sister in a small city in central India, to the seething metropolis of Calcutta a thousand miles away - where they speak Bengali instead of Hindi - takes place in 1986. After wandering the rough streets for two months rummaging for food and stealing shelter wherever he can find it, Saroo is at last taken to an orphanage. But when attempts to find his family prove futile, he's adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), a well-to-do couple who live in Hobart, Australia.
The Brierleys love and nurture Saroo with all their heart, and he adapts well to his new comfortable life and a culture that's light years away from what he knew in India. But almost 25 years later, the adult Saroo (Dev Patel), who's now a bona fide Australian studying hotel management, begins to embrace the past that has always haunted him. The idea of his mother and brother searching for him day after day after day tortures Saroo, and he becomes obsessed with finding his Indian family. His American girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) and schoolmates encourage him to research the area in India where he believes he comes from using a new computer program called Google Earth. But once Saroo goes down that rabbit hole, he gets lost once again, and quickly discovers the journey back home is as arduous and debilitating as the one that led him to Australia. And even if he locates his home, he's not sure what - if anything - he may find there.
I first learned of Saroo's inspiring story from a 60 Minutes profile, but the dramatization of his ordeal lives up to the real Saroo's riveting account of it, and seems to be devoid of the hokey embellishments that often plague true-life tales. Yes, Lion is sentimental to a degree, but what film about a man searching for the mother he unwittingly abandoned a quarter of a century ago wouldn't be? The trick is managing that sentiment and depicting it honestly, and Davis does just that.
The movie's powerful first half almost plays like a documentary with its minimal dialogue, subtitles, and emphasis on action over emotion. We feel Saroo's fear, disorientation, hopelessness, and anguish, and yet we admire his resourcefulness, strength, and fierce will to survive. His riveting odyssey falls into the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category, yet it's depicted with such matter-of-fact gravity and quiet grace, no manipulations are necessary to heighten its impact and import.
Unfortunately, the picture's second half falters a bit. Watching Saroo navigate computers and charts and stew over his relationship with Lucy isn't as interesting as seeing him navigate Calcutta's slums as a child. Yet finding his Indian home is like finding a needle in a haystack, and we need to witness the complexity of that task and the all-consuming effort that goes into it to fully respect Saroo's commitment. Sure, Davis could have shaved a few minutes off the movie's running time to jumpstart its narrative, but streamlining Saroo's adult journey might have trivialized it, and that would have been a shame.
Both Patel and Kidman received Oscar nominations for their impassioned supporting portrayals. Kidman especially impresses, adding dimension and nuance to what could have been a dull, saccharine mother role, but Patel also shows off his acting chops, once again proving he's an authentic screen presence who can tackle the demands of almost any part. Yet the astonishing work of the young Pawar resonates the most. The pint-sized wonder carries the first half of the film on his tiny shoulders, expressing a gamut of emotions without any self-conscious mugging. It's too bad the Academy did away with the Best Juvenile Performance Oscar decades ago, because Pawar would have won it hands down.
Lion is one of those triumph-of-the-human-spirit films that always grabs Oscar's attention, but it thankfully lacks the genre's defining affectations and clichés - liabilities that often sabotage similar movies. It's not a perfect motion picture, but it's instantly absorbing, beautifully shot, and provokes both a visceral emotional response and boundless admiration for its resilient, determined main character. All that -- plus fine writing, direction, and performances -- make this lyrical film one of the year's best.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
'Lion' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. A leaflet containing the code to access the Digital HD Ultraviolet copy is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for The Founder and La La Land precede the full-motion menu with music.
Lion benefits from beautiful location shooting in India and Australia, and the high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Anchor Bay thrusts us into the various atmospheres and makes us feel a part of them. A naturalistic flatness heightens the film's realistic feel, and superior clarity and contrast help highlight fine details. Rich black levels enhance the impact of nocturnal scenes, as does excellent shadow delineation, and though the color palette remains muted, the hues always appear true and well balanced. Close-ups are razor sharp, patterns remain rock solid and resist shimmering, and no nicks or specks dot the pristine source material. Lion is not a flashy film, but its visuals consistently make an impact, and this problem-free transfer accurately reflects the director's vision and Greig Fraser's Oscar-nominated cinematography.
Right off the bat, this highly active DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track impresses with its superior fidelity, clarity, and directionality, and it continues to earn kudos throughout the rest of the film's running time. Surround activity isn't constant, but it's frequent and pronounced, running the gamut from delicate atmospheric nuances to more bombastic sounds. The fluttering of moths, traffic and crowd noises, bicycle bells, chirping birds, and bits of scoring all bleed into the rear speakers and create an enveloping, distinctly ordered soundscape that puts us in the center of the action. Even the stereo separation across the front channels is bold and crisp, so our ears are constantly engaged and stimulated. A wide dynamic scale complements the lyrical, Oscar-nominated music score, managing all of its highs and lows without a hint of distortion, and strong but well-integrated bass frequencies supply weighty undertones when necessary. The characters' accents and occasional mumbling make some of the dialogue difficult to comprehend, but the exchanges are all well prioritized and firmly anchored. Rarely does a drama of this sort exude such aural vibrancy and complexity, but the Lion mix dazzles from start to finish and greatly enhances this intimate true-life tale.
The typical blend of deleted scenes and slick featurettes comprise the supplemental package. An audio commentary with the director and the real Saroo most likely would have been very enlightening, but alas, no such luck.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 5 minutes) - Three excised scenes add some more emotion and romance but not much substance to the tale. Patel shines in all three sequences, but despite his fine work, they were well left on the cutting room floor.
Behind the Scenes Gallery
A Conversation with Saroo Brierley (HD, 8 minutes) - The real Saroo describes his agonizing ordeal and arduous struggle to find his family in this absorbing featurette that uses clips from the film to illustrate his narrative.
Dev Patel (HD, 3 minutes) - The actor talks about his commitment to the project, the long audition process, and how his close relationship with his own mother influenced his decision to do the film. Kidman, Mara, and director Garth Davis also praise his work in this brief piece.
Nicole Kidman (HD, 3 minutes) - Kidman admits the film's "mythical themes" and focus on "the power of mothers" fueled her desire to accept her role, and she champions Davis' artistic vision. Kidman also reveals Sue Brierley wanted her to play her, and discusses how their bond as adoptive mothers made it easier for her to slip into Sue's skin.
Director Garth Davis (HD, 4 minutes) - Davis describes how he viewed the film's first half as an external story and the second half as an internal story, "sort of like a yin and yang," and emphasizes the importance of a strong cast. He also expresses how the themes of hope and love make the movie resonate with audiences.
Making the Music (HD, 4 minutes) - In this featurette, composers Dustin O'Halloran and Hauschka discuss their collaboration, the grafting of instruments, and how their score evolved over time. Film clips that showcase their music and some brief footage of recording sessions augment their remarks.
Music Video: "Never Give Up" (HD, 4 minutes) - The ever-shrouded Sia performs this inspirational song that plays over the film's closing credits.
Lion is one of 2016's best films. The true story of a young Indian boy's frightening odyssey, improbable rescue, and dogged search for his lost family is filmed with passion and conviction by director Garth Davis and performed to perfection by a terrific international cast. Emotional, inspirational tales often devolve into a syrupy mess, but Lion remains focused and forthright throughout, embracing its subject without exploiting it, and the result is an honest, affecting portrait of love, anguish, and perseverance. An excellent video transfer and five-star audio distinguish Anchor Bay's Blu-ray presentation, which makes this powerful movie more involving and immediate. Though Lion may not have received as much attention as other Best Picture nominees, it more than holds its own against them, and comes very Highly Recommended.