Lion looks beautiful from first to last and in its early frames sweeping aerial shots fly over forest, sea and barren open spaces that could represent either India or Australia. This is vital to a film split in reality, memory and imagination between both nations and the uncertainty of knowing which home is where the heart is. The first half, and strongest portion, begins in Khandwa where Saroo and his elder brother, Guddu (Abhishek Bharate), help their mother by pilfering and selling coal from trains. As the younger Saroo, Pawar's ease on camera and dazzling smile are an utter delight. His fearlessness and instant charm make for a winning combination. Offering to share milk bought with the proceeds of their labours, we see he has a good heart.
His determination is also clear, proudly telling his brother "I can lift anything," as he hoists a bike above his head. Allowed along with a night-time piece of work he falls asleep and loses Guddu, perhaps forever. After mistakenly boarding an unmanned train, Saroo finds himself 1600km away in Calcutta. Looking upon all things with a mixture of wonderment, naivete and fear, his perilous solitude and helplessness is very affecting. Allusions to child abduction and abuse are momentarily unnerving but soon enough this lost boy is whisked away to Tasmania and new mum and dad, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John (David Wenham). The sights, sounds and a fully stocked fridge here are as bewildering as the big city but Saroo is wrapped in love and affection by doting foster parents. Another brother joins soon afterwards and we move forward in time to Dev Patel heading off to study in Melbourne.
A beautiful American (Rooney Mara) catches his eye and a relationship begins without any kind of preamble or real character development but at a soiree hosted by Indian friends the sight of freshly cooked jalebis comes like a bolt from the blue, and a scene earlier in the film. This long buried calling seems to be the main impetus behind an obsession to find his birth mother and Guddu that explodes within Saroo from this point forwards. Kidman does a lot with a little as a foster mum struggling to keep her family together. One dinner scene where unruly, troubled brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa) causes a stir is well played by all. But a grossly overbearing score and a pudgy middle section leads Lion down a meandering course towards a climax that does not achieve the emotional impact it should.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 5-16 October. Book your tickets at bfi.org.uk/lff.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens