Director: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Michelle Dockery, Charlotte Rampling, Emily Mortimer, Harriet Walter
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release date: April 14th
‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.’
So goes a summation of the past by precocious teenager Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) in The Sense of an Ending, a definition which proves to haunt his contemporaries long into the future, and which neatly sums up the theme of this film. Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is awoken from his quietly-retired, amicably-divorced, self-imposed ‘old-age’ by an unexpected inheritance, a diary of Finn’s, prompting Tony to revisit memories of his young adulthood and uncover the truth about a series of secret affairs and suicides which took place more than 40 years earlier.
Director Ritesh Batra, along with writer Nick Payne, has done a splendid job at adapting Julian Barnes’ phenomenal 2011 novella, a book akin to a short, sharp and acidic shot of virulent spirits that long leaves a lingering aftertaste. The winding chronological patterning of the source material is adjusted into something more formally suitable for a film, yet the intense twists and turns of the plot are no less shocking for it. This also results in Tony’s ex-wife Margaret (Webster) being further developed as a character, as her scenes provide a neat framing device through which Tony can relay the events of his past. Batra also introduces a motif of photography that plays out vividly on-screen, and resonates thematically for a character grappling with ideas of inadequately-recorded history. The director of 2013’s The Lunchbox clearly understands the talismanic power yielded by cameras and photographs.
Other additions result in the film veering into funnier and more sentimental territory than may be expected, with a subplot about the birth of Tony’s first grandchild, and an increased focus on his relationships with old friends and the local postman, introducing a thematic through-line of redeeming oneself through relations with others. These moments work excellently to balance the harsh sadness at the heart of the film, the unreliable narrator of the novella finally being checked by those around him to put what he has learned about human relationships, and all we can ever hope to know about their motivations, into practice.
Broadbent, as Tony, is on fine form. A versatile actor who can dial his performances up or down as any situation demands it, he plays Tony as a character whose belligerence is directly proportional to his ignorance, but whose youthful short-sightedness is finally corrected, brought into acute relief, in the film’s unexpected climax. The film makes extravagant, yet erratic, use of flashbacks of the young Tony (Billy Howle), his girlfriend Veronica (Freya Mavor), and their friend Adrian, highlighting the relatable naiveite, passion, and hurt of adolescence that informed all the events, and relationships, that followed.
The Sense of an Ending, then, delivers on its loaded title by coming full circle and revealing no more, no less, than what we need to know, to understand about its story. What the film may offer, even over the book, is a sense of a beginning, that Tony may now embrace the world around him for the first time in the decades, following the over-emotional-exertions of his youth. It’s a wholesome, powerful message that undercuts some of the darkness the film brings into the light, and it’s delivered so warmly. The Sense of an Ending is poetic, reflective, yet edgy – like a beautifully broken mirror, its subject may appear splintered on reflection, yet is whole, nonetheless, and may behave as such.