The Sense of an Ending
Modest British drama pits the past against the present, but neither one is really that big a deal
The Sense of an Ending (2017)
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Ramping, Michelle Dockery
English author Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot, Arthur & George) finds his Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending on the receiving end of a dutiful cinematic adaptation courtesy of Indian-born filmmaker Ritesh Batra (2013’s The Lunchbox). It features some subtle performances and an intrigue-filled setup, but squanders much of its potential with a too-teasing narrative and an inability to pay off properly in the end.
Jim Broadbent (Topsy-Turvy, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Gangs of New York, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) stars as Tony Webster, a happily divorced semi-retiree dutifully waking up to the alarm clock every morning, eating his toast and and puttering around his tiny vintage camera repair shop in London. He’s got a politely friendly relationship going with his ex-wife (Harriet Walter from “Downton Abbey,” Atonement and Sense and Sensibility). And he checks in often enough with his middle-aged, pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery, off “Downton Abbey” as well) that the relationship doesn’t count as “estranged.” But there’s something distant about old Tony. He goes about his life with a sort of casual disinterest. Perhaps it’s that he’s too nostalgic. Or maybe he’s just a self-absorbed jerk. Tony’s introductory voice-over talks about how, as young people, we seek out passionate emotions—the kind we see in movies. But as we get older, we seek simpler emotions—the sort that comfort us or reinforce what we already know and feel.
Tony’s passionate past catches up with him one fateful day when he receives a letter from his old college girlfriend’s mother. This causes him to flash back to those bygone days of the early 1960s when he was a callow youth. Fresh out of sixth form (high school, basically) young Tony (played in these earlier sequences by relative newcomer Billy Howle) bumps into fetching, freckled strawberry blonde Veronica (Freya Mavor from the TV series “Skins”) at a party. The two begin the usual, tentative teenage relationship. At one point, Tony goes to meet Veronica’s parents, including her mother (played by Emily Mortimer of Lovely & Amazing, Bright Young Things and Match Point). Beyond that single awkward weekend, Tony never had any contact with Veronica’s parents. And—as is the case with passionate young love—Tony and Veronica broke up not terribly long after that. So when sixtysomething Tony gets a letter stating that Veronica’s mother has passed away and left something for him in her will, he’s suitably intrigued.
His intrigue turns to confusion, however, when he meets with a solicitor and finds out that the woman has bequeathed him a diary belonging to a long-gone college chum. Things get even more emotionally tangled when it turns out Veronica has possession of the diary and is unwilling to give it up. Tangled up in memories of his late teens/early twenties, Tony is unable to let it go. He hunts down his old squeeze, Veronica (played in present day by the legendary Charlotte Rampling), but she blows him off like a practiced ice queen. What caused the rift between these two one-time lovers? Tony spends the rest of the film trying to figure out what’s going on, reflecting on the various paths he and his old friends have taken over the years and coming to grips with his long-buried past.
The Sense of an Ending boasts an impressive cast of English actors. It’s hard to imagine Barnes’ novel getting a more tony treatment. Whereas the book had the literary luxury of ruminating in the first-person on everything from aging to the way in which we recall our past to what we choose to regret in life, however, the film finds itself less confident of its voice. “History is written by the victors,” points out one of our philosophical young students, highlighting the problem of trusting history—and by extension, memory. It’s clear that the way in which Tony has chosen to remember the past is probably at odds with what actually happened.
The film tries to build a sense of mystery around the diary and what really happened between Tony and Veronica all those decades ago. But at the end of the day, the secrets hidden inside The Sense of an Ending are strictly small potatoes. The diary, which never actually shows up, is something of a McGuffin. And Tony isn’t actually suppressing his past in some sort of crisis-induced amnesia. He’s just avoiding thinking about it. By the time he gets around to showing us the correct flashback, the impact is rather blunted. Barnes’ patient, self-assured novel was separated into two distinct sections. The first was told entirely from the viewpoint of young Tony. The second is a reflection by the older, if not entirely wiser, Tony. This enhanced the differences between the two stories. Batra’s film version—based on a screenplay by first-timer Nick Payne—sticks with a much more traditional structure, interlacing the past and present and taking away a lot of the philosophical qualities of the original. In hiding (or at least delaying for 70 minutes or so) the truth about Tony’s past, the film creates too much importance around the big “reveal.” The facts in this case aren’t all that important. Or particularly shocking. The interplay between what really happened in the past and how we choose to remember it is the real point of Barnes’ story.
The Sense of an Ending is an incredibly modest—perhaps deceptively so—film. There are a lot of minute details here that, if paid close attention to, will deliver some worthy emotional rewards. Stripped of Barnes’ meticulous prose, however, the story itself is mighty thin. In the end Tony confronts the not-so-big secret—most of which he pretty much already knew—and is … slightly nicer to his mailman. Yeah, that’s it. It ain’t exactly transformative. Sometimes, it turns out, the past isn’t as interesting as we remember.