As director Garth Davis' Oscar-nominated Lion opens, five-year-old Saroo (Sunny Pawar, in a wonderful screen debut) is waiting at a train station for his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) when he accidentally falls asleep aboard a dormant train and awakens in the morning, the moving vehicle now countless miles across India, in Calcutta.
With no understanding of the local Bengali language, Saroo wanders the city with impressive street smarts and is eventually placed in an orphanage. Not long after, with his family unable to ever track him down and vice versa, he is adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham), who whole-heartedly adore Saroo from the get-go.
This opening half of Lion suggests a masterpiece in cinema. It's sumptuously photographed, with cinematography by Greig Fraser, features a stirring original score by Hauschka and Dustin O'Halloran and boasts that delightful, engaging performance by Pawar, who has an enormous screen presence. Kidman is fantastic too, in scenes both early and later in the film, though I do wish her character was more fleshed-out.
Lion's latter half, I'm afraid, isn't quite on-par with its exceptional start. In this portion of the picture, set 25 years later, an adult Saroo (Dev Patel) is now residing in Melbourne, where he studies hotel management. Following an evening of Indian cuisine with friends and his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara), Saroo finds himself overcome with flashbacks to his childhood. His friends suggest he utilize Google Earth to finally locate his hometown and before long, this search becomes an obsession for Saroo.
These scenes, while competently filmed and performed, don't pack the same punch as those featuring Pawar. Moreover, Mara, who should have won last year's Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Carol, is obscenely underused in a thankless role. Only toward the film's conclusion does it muster the same impact as earlier but these moments are also a tad dampened by the use of a bombastic original song by Sia.
Even if Lion overall does not live up to the sky-high promise of its first hour, the picture is still an immensely moving one and deserving of the recognition it's so far garnered.