Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come.
'Twas Grace that brought me safe thus far, and Grace will lead me home.
John Newton's famous old hymn doesn't appear on the soundtrack of Lion, but that feels like an oversight. Garth Davis' award-courting movie makes a strong case for a guiding 'grace' without ever mentioning it by name, through telling the true story of Saroo Brierley, an Indian-born Australian who somehow found safety after being marooned a thousand miles from home at just five years old.
Dev Patel gives a fine performance as the grown-up Saroo, but he doesn't appear for almost the whole of the first half of the film. Until he does, a cast of wonderful child actors (led by the diminutive Sunny Pawar) play out the heartbreaking story of the character's early life. Living with his mother, sister and older brother in a small impoverished village, Saroo's headstrong nature gets him into serious trouble. Forcing his brother to take him to a nearby town to help with some casual labour, he ends up asleep and alone on an out-of-service train to Calcutta, over 1,600 kilometres away. When he's finally able to escape the train, he's in a strange land full of danger and short on help. His escapes from the hands of traffickers and other evils are frequent and often too close for comfort; an ugly insight into a nation that treats its poorest children like cockroaches.
Remarkably though, Saroo finds his way to Australia – via a cruel children's home – and to altruistic adoptive parents Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). Against all odds, Saroo is safe, and placed at the heart of a loving family.
Twenty years later, we find Saroo fully-grown and no less headstrong, embarking on higher education and making new friends including love interest Lucy (Rooney Mara). As he meets other students with Indian heritage however, he begins to reflect on his own past, and soon sets out on an increasingly-obsessive quest to find the obscure village from which he originated. He yearns to know if his family are still alive, and to connect with his true home, the place where he was meant to grow up.
This sense of unresolved yearning is at the very heart of Lion. Saroo is safe and in relative terms richer than he could ever have dreamed; yet deep down he has an aching sense of homesickness – a feeling that he's actually a citizen of a different kingdom. One would imagine that preachers will be peppering sermons with clips and references from the film for years to come, and perhaps rightly so. It's a pretty perfect allegory for the way so many of us search for a deeper meaning to our lives.
The story of Saroo's attempt to reconnect with his family is moving and remarkable (perhaps it'd be unbelievable if we didn't know it was true). Yet for me it's the extraordinary journey across India made by that five-year-old boy, who somehow then escapes mounting dangers in Calcutta, which really elevates Lion. Saroo is only able to make the journey towards home because he survived all those "dangers, toils and snares" in the first place, and while the film contains barely any reference to God, a viewer who is minded to can certainly trace his hand in Saroo's extraordinary luck.
Lion is a tremendous piece of film-making. Davis draws brilliant performances out of his whole cast, and especially the younger members, while he balances capturing the toxicity of the Indian city with the beauty of the wider country, not least in an eye-popping series of opening shots. The story is compelling throughout, and while the mainly-subtitled first half is a surprise given the trailer, it's actually the strongest part of the movie, and shouldn't put foreign-language-avoidant audiences off.
Cult film reviewer Mark Kermode once coined the phrase "there's an awful lot of Shawshank before you get to the Redemption", and it's certainly applicable here. Saroo's descent into the dangerous city as a child and then into near-breakdown as he fruitlessly scours Google Earth for home, is at times a gruelling watch. Ultimately though, Lion rewards, and more so because of the pain of the journey. Perhaps that's the story of Saroo Brierley's remarkable life, a perfect illustration of amazing grace.