Three stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang
Saroo Brierley’s personal saga is the stuff of harrowing Dickensian melodrama: a deeply emotional and ultimately triumphant journey recounted in his 2014 memoir, A Long Way Home.
|Waiting to reunite with an older brother who fails to return for him, 5-year-old Saroo (Sunny|
Pawar) boards a parked train, assuming that it eventually will take him back home. Sadly,
and alarmingly, he's in for a nasty surprise.
The story screamed for big-screen treatment, but the result disappoints. Poet and novelist Luke Davies’ script focuses only on the beginning and end of Brierley’s chronicle, ignoring a lengthy middle segment and — as a result — leaving viewers with all sorts of questions. Perhaps more crucially, the film’s powerful first half completely overwhelms what follows; first-time feature director Garth Davis lacks the skill to hold our attention during the increasingly tedious and dull second act.
On top of which, Dev Patel — who plays the twentysomething Brierley — is badly overshadowed by young Sunny Pawar, who plays 5-year-old Saroo.
Pawar’s performance is stunning. Patel ... not so much.
The film clearly has been a marketing challenge, given the various posters created to pique viewer interest. None is very dynamic, perhaps the most misleading dominated by large close-ups of Patel and co-star Rooney Mara, staring into each other’s eyes, thus implying a romantic focus that’s only a very small part of the narrative.
All of which is a shame. Davies didn’t adapt the story very well; Davis brought nothing to the table; and the Weinstein Company bungled the marketing. Brierley deserved far better.
We meet Saroo as an adorably precocious little boy, completely devoted to older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate). They live in cruel poverty, in the Ganesh Tilai neighborhood of rural India’s Khandwa, in the Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh. The boys beg, scuffle for odd jobs, and steal coal from moving trains, to supplement the meager wages earned by their single mother, Kamla (Priyanka Bose), who moves rocks at construction sites.
When Guddu gets word of potential work a short nighttime train ride away, Saroo demands to tag along, insisting that he’s strong enough to do anything his brother can do. Guddu relents, but the journey proves exhausting for the little boy; Guddu leaves him to rest on a platform bench, promising to return soon.
But he doesn’t.
The station is deserted when Saroo wakens. Exploring, repeatedly calling his brother by name, the little boy wanders into an empty train, assuming that Guddu will return, and that this train will take them back home. Saroo falls asleep again, not realizing that this is a decommissioned train being sent across the entire country. Worse yet, once awake, he’s unable to open the door, in order to escape each time the train slows to pass various stations.
When it finally stops at Kolkata’s huge Howrah station, the terrified Saroo flees into the bustling streets. He’s almost a thousand miles from home — not that he knows this — and can’t even communicate; he speaks Hindi, while most of the people he encounters speak Bengali.
The subsequent ordeal, unfolding over days and weeks, is both riveting and heartbreaking. Pawar’s expressive little face ratchets through terror, exhaustion and wariness, the latter likely saving his life on several occasions. Davies’ script suggests danger by implication, but there’s no question that some of the adults Saroo encounters don’t have his best interests at heart.
The engaging delicacy of Pawar’s performance emerges in the curiosity that he also displays at unexpected moments: an innocence, punctuated by occasional smiles, that children manifest even amidst hardship. Davis deserves credit for coaxing such a radiant performance from his youngest cast member, and we’re transfixed by the little boy’s plight.
I’ll skip details, but it is necessary — in order to set up the film’s second half — to acknowledge that Saroo eventually winds up in a huge orphanage that is right out of Oliver Twist. He’s lucky, and gets adopted fairly quickly by John and Sue Brierley (David Wenham and Nicole Kidman), who take him to their home in Hobart, Australia.
The Brierleys subsequently adopt a second boy, Mantosh (Keshav Jadhav), introduced just long enough to witness his severe emotional problems...
...and then whammo! Suddenly we jump ahead 20 years, reunited with Saroo (now played by Patel) as he joyously frolics in the ocean. The transition is jarring, to say the least, but apparently Davies felt this was the best way to proceed to the most important part of Saroo’s story. (I’d call that a serious miscalculation.)
Saroo has become a happy young man, deeply devoted to his adoptive parents, and contemplating a career in hotel management. During an introductory seminar, he and Lucy (Mara) lock eyes; they happen upon each other while walking down a street one day, the flirty chemistry immediate and palpable.
We assume that Saroo has all but forgotten his childhood, or at least has made peace with such memories. But a chance conversation introduces him to the wonders of Google Earth, and he suddenly wonders: Might it be possible to backtrack from Howrah station, to find his childhood home, and perhaps his family? Difficult as this challenge is already, it’s further complicated by the fact that he’s unable to find any village or town with the name that we watched his frightened 5-year-old self repeat to so many people.
Granted, the stuff of single-minded research makes for poor drama, but other directors, in other films, have found ways to maintain viewer interest. Davis lacks that gift, choosing instead to turn Saroo into an obsessed, Howard Hughes-esque recluse. Mara can’t begin to navigate the complexities of Lucy’s reaction to all of this; while their early “courtship phase” is sweet, the later nature of their relationship is maddeningly elliptical.
As is our reintroduction to Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who lives alone, still with emotional issues, and surviving we know not how. Reference is made to how Mantosh has “broken his mother’s (Sue’s) heart,” but that’s little more than said-bookism; Davies doesn’t even try to fill in all of these narrative gaps.
Patel’s strong suit always has been jovial charm, but he gets little opportunity for that here. And, sadly, he’s not very good at “obsessive/compulsive.” He simply doesn’t make the adult Saroo very interesting, and we yearn for little Pawar’s far more persuasive performance.
Kidman and Wenham make it clear that the Brierleys are good, kind-hearted people, but that’s about it. Kidman does have one strong scene, when Sue tells a surprised Saroo why she and her husband made a point of adopting him. It’s a refreshingly honest and persuasive moment, and this half of the story could have used a lot more like it.
That said, the film’s production values and location work are unerringly authentic. Davis and cinematographer Greig Fraser make the most of the cacophonous Kolkata settings, and the dusty, heat-shimmering Madhya Pradesh city of Indore stands in for Saroo’s boyhood home. The various Australian locales are gorgeously lush by contrast.
Ultimately — eventually — Davis concludes his film on a triumphant note, one made sweeter by some real-life footage, just prior to the credits. But it’s too little, too late; Brierley deserved far better than this clumsy, uneven treatment of his story.
You’re much better off reading the book.