Saturday, February 11, 2017

Finding Home: Lion

Dev Patel in Lion

is a magnificent piece of humanist filmmaking, so powerfully affecting that you carry it with you out of the moviehouse, as if the protagonist, the transplanted Indian boy Saroo, were someone you knew personally who’d shared with you his strange and improbable life story. (When I reread my notes from viewing the film almost a month ago, I started tearing up all over again.) In fact, it’s a true tale: Luke Davies’s fine screenplay adapts Saroo Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home. The director, Garth Davis, made his name on commercials, and directed four episodes of Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake; aside from a documentary, Lion is the only feature film he’s done. But he’s had towering role models: the early section, with the luminous Sunny Pawar as the little-boy protagonist, suggests De Sica’s neo-realist classics – especially the 1948 Shoeshine – and the transcendent films of the Indian director Satyajit Ray.

Pawar’s Saroo has piercing brown eyes, alert to both wonder and danger, and just as with the child Apu in Ray’s Pather Panchali and the opening scenes of its sequel, Aparajito, it’s through those eyes that we see his world. He lives with his mother Kamla (Priyanka Bose, in a performance of tremendous emotional openness), an illiterate laborer (she hauls rocks), his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) and his baby sister in a slum in rural Khandwa. Some nights Guddu, who can’t be older than twelve or thirteen, ventures out to find work, and on one of those nights Saroo persuades his older brother, whom he adores, to take him along. But Saroo can’t keep his eyes open, so Guddu lets him sleep on a bench on a train platform, planning to pick him up on the way home. Saroo wakes up in the dark next to a decommissioned train and, dazed, still half-asleep, wanders inside to look for Guddu; the train starts up and the child finds himself locked inside as it travels twelve hundred kilometers west to Calcutta, crying out vainly to the figures on other platforms as it speeds past them and calling out his brother’s name, as if he might magically pop up on one of them. When the train goes back into service and he’s finally released, he can’t make himself understood by the strangers he approaches – he speaks Hindi, not Bengali – and the name of the tiny town he comes from, his only marker, means nothing to any of them. (Moreover, as we learn later, his little-boy pronunciation distorts it.) Davis keeps us in Saroo’s emotional point of view so his terror and confusion and loneliness are heightened for us, and Pawar renders them with exquisite clarity and specificity. At Calcutta’s train station, where homeless kids get temporary shelter in a corridor, he sleeps on a piece of cardboard an older boy offers him, then awakens to find them being routed by guards and barely escapes being run down by a bus as he slips away from his pursuers. He wanders along the waterfront, praying at a shrine and then stealing some of the food offerings. A young woman, Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee), takes him home to her flat in a poor area of the city, bathes and feeds him and lets him sleep in her bed; she seems kind. But the man (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) she introduces him to in the morning, who promises to help him find his family, is a procurer. Fortunately Saroo has strong survivor’s instincts: he senses peril and runs away when Noor’s back is turned. For two months he lives under a bridge and scavenges in the streets of Calcutta, until he makes eye contact with a teenage boy through the window of a café who brings him to the local police precinct.

Abhishek Bharate and Sunny Pawar

The first half hour of Lion, focused on Saroo’s childhood, has the narrative entrancement of a fairy tale, with Saroo as the child hero who journeys far from home but manages, miraculously, to sidestep danger. He’s sent to an orphanage, where one of the other boys, Shondeep (Surojit Das), is pimped out by the night porter, but he makes it through his brief time there (about a year) without being targeted. (There’s an amazing scene where, after Shondeep is led out, one of the girls in the dormitory starts to sing and the other children join in, in a kind of desperate solidarity.) Since the orphanage’s efforts to track down Saroo’s mother through the papers have failed – inevitably, since Kamla couldn’t have read the appeals – its director (Deepti Naval) finds a couple in Tasmania who are eager to adopt him. She teaches him and a couple of other children bound for Australian foster homes a smattering of English (and some table manners) and suddenly Saroo is transported to another world, to a comfortable middle-class existence in Hobart with Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who raise him lovingly and teach him to swim and sail and play cricket. A year later they adopt another Indian boy, Mantosh, who hasn’t been as lucky as Saroo. When he acts out, yelling and hitting himself, we recognize his self-destructive behavior from our glimpse of Shondeep and realize that this kid, too, has been abused. And despite all the love Sue and John lavish on him, all their patience and optimism, he’s beyond fixing.

At this point the movie advances twenty years and we see that Saroo has grown into a bearded Dev Patel, whose bright, attentive eyes and shy smile recall Sunny Pawar’s. Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) lives an itinerant, sometimes drug-addled life, his periodic disappearances plunging Sue into depression – though she’s forever defending him – and infuriating his brother. Saroo, by contrast, is well adjusted. He moves to Melbourne to study business, falls in love with an American classmate, Lucy (Rooney Mara, a welcome addition to any movie), and is befriended by some other Indians in the program. It’s at dinner at their home that Saroo has a sense-memory experience that brings him back to his childhood in Khandwa. His madeleine is a plate of jalebis (Indian fried pastries) in his hosts’ kitchen; the night he and Guddu were separated, he’d asked his older brother to buy him some. At dinner Saroo has told the others that he was born in Calcutta; now, as if were unearthing his origins for the first time, he comes out with the truth – that he was lost, far from home – though what he actually says is “I am lost.” The present tense is crucial here: Saroo now sees himself as lost still. He’s plunged back into his past, obsessed with it. At the end of the course he returns to Hobart with Lucy, but he becomes remote from her as his sadness and anger and restlessness overtake him. He begins to resent the privileged life he’s led while his family continued to struggle in poverty in India; he recalls the day when he was hit by a bicyclist in the street (he still has the scar) and Kamla’s anger at Guddu for not taking sufficient care of him (“Don’t you love him?” she demands in the flashback), and he imagines Guddu’s horror at returning to the bench at the train station and finding his little brother had vanished. Saroo quits his job; all he can focus on is his efforts to trace back from his journey to Calcutta, using Google Earth and the rates of speed of passenger trains two decades earlier, to locate his home. But it isn’t until he’s successful that he finally tells Sue and John what he’s been up to, because he doesn’t want them to think that he’s ungrateful to them or that he has stopped thinking of them as his parents. Naïve, and distracted by his own quest, he’s managed to misjudge them. Far from feeling slighted or undervalued, they share his excitement as he prepares to return to India to look for his family. He’s wrong about something else, too: he’s always assumed that they adopted him and Mantosh because they couldn’t have children of their own. It’s Sue who explains to him that a mystical experience in her own unhappy childhood brought her to the belief that she was meant to adopt children the world had discarded, and she fell in love with John when she found he thought the same way.

Nicole Kidman and Sunny Pawar

This scene may be the best one Nicole Kidman has ever played. I’ve always found Kidman to be a weird, sometimes dislocated actor, often stuck in roles she’s dead wrong for. (She was certainly miscast earlier last year in Genius, about the relationship of Thomas Wolfe and editor Maxwell Perkins, where she played Wolfe’s lover, Aline Bernstein, but then, aside from Jude Law, triumphantly exuberant as Wolfe, almost everyone in the picture, from Colin Firth as Perkins down to Guy Pearce and Dominic West as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, seemed miscast.) You can’t always tell what Kidman will be good at – who would have guessed she’d break through with a Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis-style tough-dame performance in Philip Kaufman’s TV movie Hemingway and Gellhorn?. But she does have a gift for playing women gnawed at by private demons, as she did in The Others and as she does here. What she shows in Lion as well is an unexpected warmth. It’s a stunning performance, and so is Dev Patel’s. Patel was splendid as Jamal in Slumdog Millionaire and in the Exotic Marigold movies and on Aaron Sorkin’s TV series The Newsroom, so his work in Lion is less a surprise than a culmination. The highest compliment I can pay him is to say that I wish Satyajit Ray had lived longer enough to direct him.

This is the third terrific movie I’ve seen in the past year about children who come from poverty; the others, both triumph-of-the-spirit films, are The Dark Horse and Queen of Katwe. Lion is the most remarkable of the three. At the end of the picture, after Saroo has discovered what became of his family, he walks the railroad track he used to traverse with Guddu as a child and he sees them in his mind’s eye as children once more. It’s a breathtaking moment, like the magic-realist reunion of the two brothers near the end of the great Italian epic The Best of Youth, but Davis doesn’t go the magic-realist route; he sticks to realism. You could say, in fact, that Lion achieves the realist ideal: its pellucid surface reveals unimaginable depths.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

No comments:

Post a Comment