Proust’s madeleine—the taste of which sent him down a seven-volume journey of intense, exquisite recollection—is one of the
most famous literary tropes of the 20th Century. Two recent movies employ their own mnemonic devices for their lead characters. In Garth Davis’ Lion, it’s
a plate of jelabis—an Indian fried batter cake similar to a funnel cake—that bring back memories for Saroo Brierley of his early childhood. For Tony Webster,
protagonist of Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending, the thing that prompts a flood of memories is nothing so delicious as a madeleine or a jelabi. Rather, it
is a letter from a law office, informing him he has been left a diary in the will of a long-dead friend.
Lion, written by Luke Davies from Brierley’s autobiography A Long Way Home, begins with Saroo (Sunny Pawar), a
five-year-old boy in a remote village in India. He performs odd jobs and minor thefts with his older brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) to help out their impoverished mother
Kamla (Priyanka Bose) and baby sister Shekila (Khushi Solanki). Some of the things Saroo and Guddu do—such as throwing coal off the top of a moving train—are
mind-bogglingly dangerous, but for the boys it’s just a day’s work. There is little money for luxuries, but Guddu promises faithfully one day to buy Saroo his
favorite treat—a jelabi.
One night Guddu heads to the local train station for a job. He tells Saroo the work is too strenuous for him, but Saroo begs so
hard that Guddu relents. Once at the station, Guddu sits Saroo down on a bench and tells him to take a nap. When he comes
back for Saroo, the boy is sleeping so soundly that Guddu decides to leave him be.
When Saroo wakes, Guddu is nowhere to be found. Desperate, Saroo boards an empty train that turns out to be headed for
Kolkata, hundreds of miles away on the other side of India.
Saroo’s adventures in Kolkata are harrowing, and familiar to any moviegoers who have seen Slumdog Millionaire or Salaam
Bombay! However, Saroo eventually is fortunate enough to be adopted by Sue and John Brierley (Nicole Kidman, David Wenham), who bring him to their home in Tasmania.
Twenty years later, Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) is a somewhat smug young man studying hotel management in
Melbourne. He has a decent relationship with his adoptive parents, but a lousy one with Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), his waste
-case foster brother whom the Brierleys also adopted from India. He also has an American girlfriend, Lucy (Rooney Mara), whom he met in school.
Saroo’s life seems set on a comfortable, unruffled course.
And then, at a party, he sees the plate of jelabis…
The rest of Lion concerns Saroo’s emotional tailspin, which culminates in his search for his birth family and his childhood
village, the name of which he only vaguely remembers. In ancient tales, magic ships and flying carpets brought the wandering hero home; here, Google Earth provides the magic.
Brierley’s story is, of course, utterly improbable, as if Dickens collaborated with the authors of the Arabian Nights. In Davis’
hands, the story is the best kind of magic realism. The details of Lion are as concrete as they can be, yet imbued with magic as
shards of memory, brief and glimmering, flash through Brierley’s head. The movie has its scenes of sentimental uplift at the end,
but because of its honesty and delicacy, it earns them.
Davis gets tremendous help from his cinematographer, Greig Fraser, and even more from his cast. Pawar and Bharate are
marvelously endearing in the film’s first part, and Patel, in its second, gives a powerful and magnetic performance as a man
tortured by his lost childhood. Kidman, as his mother, is equally fine. There is a scene toward the end in which Kidman reveals to
Patel a particular sacrifice she made; that scene alone was enough to guarantee both actors the Oscar nominations they eventually received.
Compared with Lion, The Sense of an Ending—with a screenplay by Nick Payne based on the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by
Julian Barnes—is at first glance a more quotidian story. In the end, however, it justifies our attention as a study of a man who
must face up to, and make amends for, his past.
Tony (Jim Broadbent) is a crotchety sexagenarian living alone in London. He runs a tiny shop selling antique cameras, largely it
seems for the opportunity it gives him for solitude. His best friend is his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter), who nevertheless
seems relieved she divorced him. Their grown daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is expecting; sometimes Tony remembers to
take her to and pick her up from her Lamaze classes, sometimes not.
One day, Tony receives a letter from a solicitor regarding a curious bequest: Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer), the mother of his
long-estranged ex-girlfriend Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), has died, leaving Tony a diary kept by Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), a
college friend who killed himself. Tony is bemused but intrigued by the bequest, and his curiosity reaches flash point when Veronica refuses to release the diary.
The situation leads both to an awkward reunion between Tony and Veronica and (for Tony) a trip down a long-unvisited
memory lane. We see how Tony (played in flashback by Billy Howle) and Veronica (Freya Mavor) first met; how Veronica
brought Tony to her parents’ house; how Veronica gave Tony his first camera; and how Adrian, a diffident and depressive sort,
began to supersede Tony in Veronica’s life, to Tony’s rage.
Tony’s memories, as memories often are, are roseate and self
-serving. Without giving away too much, Veronica’s brief return to his life serves to remind him of things he had conveniently
forgotten, and correct longtime assumptions that were completely erroneous.
The first half of The Sense of an Ending is so languid that audiences could be forgiven for becoming as impatient as Tony,
muttering for the director to get on with it. Fortunately, with Veronica’s appearance, the film gains focus as the story of a man
who must—and finally does—come to grips with his life. It’s too bad that the role of Veronica doesn’t give Rampling, who was so wonderful in 45 Years, much to do. The same can be said of the
roles given Dockery, James Wilby as the young Veronica’s father, and Matthew Goode as a teacher.
However, the actors given a chance to register do so splendidly.
Tony is a role right up Broadbent’s alley—a curmudgeon with just the vestige of a twinkle—and Broadbent gives Tony gentle
nuances that go a long way to melt the hearts of the audience toward an otherwise indigestible character. Harriet Walter is
just as excellent as Margaret, who gives Tony the benefit of her tough love. Howle and Mavor are impressive as the young Tony
and Veronica, and Emily Mortimer is touching as Sarah, a woman who never quite found her niche in life.
The Sense of an Ending will probably only appeal to the Anglophiles out there, but they will be rewarded with an
insightful and moving film about the tender unreliability of memory.