Because my husband is a recording engineer and works in one of the minor fiefdoms of a major entertainment organization, we sometimes get to see films we might not otherwise have stumbled upon. There have been a couple of wonderful films this year, including Florence Foster Jenkins and Arrival (two films that are so insanely different that putting them in the same sentence sends an hallucinatory frisson down my back). And then there’s Lion.

I saw a preview for Lion last fall. Pro: Dev Patel (whom I’ve admired enormously since Slumdog Millionaire). Con: a plot that looked obvious and sentimental, a sort of prestige Lifetime Movie.  Basically: a five year old boy in India gets lost, winds up 1200 miles away, goes into an orphanage whence he is adopted by a couple in New Zealand.  Twenty years later, when he’s an up-and-coming young man, he hunts for his origins (helped by Google Earth and some old train time tables), and winds up returning to India and finding his home town and his family. Sound kitchy?

It’s wonderful. Perhaps half of the film follows the little boy, Saroo, as he gets separated from his brother and winds up, harrowingly, wandering through a huge city that routinely ignores or abuses small lost children, a city where he doesn’t speak the language (Saroo speaks Hindi; Kolkata, where he winds up, is Bengali-speaking). It’s only great good luck that he survives, and is taken on by a woman whose work is placing children in adoptive homes around the world. The people who adopt him are kind and loving, but the other stroke of fortune Saroo has is his own curious, loving nature. He thrives, and for a time his first five years in India are overwritten. Sunny Prawar, the boy who plays Saroo, is wonderful: solemn, watchful, joyful and sorrowful by turns.

The second half of then film follows the adult Saroo as memories of his childhood start to well up, and he attempts to find out where he came from. He keeps this search a secret from his parents, but as it consumes him it affects his friendships and relationships. This section could have been maudlin and obvious, but Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, Divian Ladwa, Nicole Kidman and David Wenham are rooted in these characters and keep that from happening. And the script is understated and smart enough to let the viewer do the emotional heavy lifting.

Years ago I worked with a psychiatrist who specialized in depression in infants and children, and I had to read a number of monographs on the effect of trauma on children; the conclusion was that some kids are–not protected, precisely, but insulated from the worst effects by temperament. You see that happening in Lion: despite the privation of his early life and the harrowing circumstances of his separation from his family, Saroo is able to thrive. It isn’t easy; sometimes it’s terribly difficult. Even if the triumphant ending is a foregone conclusion, the journey to get there is remarkable.

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About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


Lion — 3 Comments