Julian Barnes’ short, penetrating novel about how we self-protectively edit our memories receives an intelligent, low-key, necessarily diluted big-screen treatment in The Sense of an Ending. More intellectually preoccupied with charting convulsive emotions rather than coursing with them, Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning 2011 novel traces the lingering and, ultimately, galvanic effect youthful behavior has on a set of characters a half-century later. Ritesh Batra, in his first outing since making an international name for himself four years ago with The Lunchbox, does a subtle, nuanced job in dealing with the old folks’ unearthed primal issues, even as his film settles for reassuring lessons learned rather than challenging provocations.
Anglophiles and graying art house aficionados represent the main audience for this well-acted drama flecked with quiet humor, which CBS Films will open domestically on March 10 in the wake of the film’s world premiere as the opening-night attraction at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
A venturesome exploration into human nature, the book is not one that readily announces itself as a prime candidate for cinematic transfer. But it’s never advisable to underestimate what wily, experienced British actors can do with incorrigible old-timer characters, and so it proves here with Jim Broadbent in the role of Tony Webster, a solitary old gent whose past abruptly retakes possession of him.
The mildly grumpy but mentally alert septuagenarian lives comfortably enough while maintaining a hole-in-the-wall camera store that exclusively stocks secondhand Leicas. He rather uselessly accompanies his heavily pregnant lesbian daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), to birthing class and seems devoid of any consuming interests or close friends.
Sending his serene autumnal cruise into choppy waters is the arrival of a legal letter revealing an unexpected cash bequest from a late school chum, as well as a promised copy of the man’s diary, which is nonetheless not forthcoming. Thus is unleashed a spray of flashbacks devoted to Tony’s college years and beyond, covering his intense admiration for the handsome and brilliant Adrian (Joe Alwyn, recently of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) and his equivocal courtship of the alluring but elusive Veronica (Freya Mavor), who later paired up with Adrian.
Tony (well-played in youth by Billy Howle) broke off with both of them by sending Veronica an ill-advisedly bilious letter wishing them nothing but the worst, and it’s at this point in the narrative that the novel begins to profoundly investigate the issue of selective memories, how people enshrine some chosen events and conveniently forget others. By contrast, the film skates over the surface of this investigation, remaining content to observe the behavioral quirks in old Tony’s relationships with his guarded ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter), and, eventually, with the still-elusive Veronica (played in old age by Charlotte Rampling), who won’t spell anything out for Tony but nonetheless makes him see truths he could never see for himself.
Debuting screenwriter Nick Payne nimbly shuffles the dramatic deck with the aim of fleshing out the protagonist’s late-in-life progression from mildly cranky old bloke to one willing to re-embrace life’s mysteries and his own past — which means confronting some unsettling revelations and adapting to new emotional realities. But what were painful cuts to the quick on the page are reduced to mild lessons learned on the screen, making for a passably involving experience, rather than an indelible one.
That said, the lineup of fine actors keenly registers minute details about the passage of time with humor, wisdom and a sharp sense of how moments of rash or just misguided behavior can forever dictate a life’s path (no matter how one rearranges things to sweep regrets under the rug). Nor can one have any idea what the consequences of one’s actions have truly meant to the others involved at the time.
Batra moves the action along briskly and smoothly — perhaps a bit too much so to let some of the story’s bitter truths have the bite they should. The director extends sympathy and understanding to all the characters, a talent shared by many great artists, but the courage to confront terrible ironies would also have been required to fully render this tale on the screen.
Broadbent is smooth, self-effacing and something of a subtle ham as the old-timer whose view of himself and the past acquires significant clarity. Walter, Dockery and Rampling, playing women who have differing issues with Tony, are tautly spring-loaded with repressed feelings they’re mostly loathe to express, while Emily Mortimer has her moments as the young Veronica’s frisky, hard-to-read mother.
Fine behind-the-scenes contributions make for a smooth ride all around.
Production company: Origin Pictures
Distributor: CBS Films
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Emily Mortimer, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Charlotte Rampling, Joe Alwyn, James Wilby
Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenwriter: Nick Payne, based on the novel by Julian Barnes
Producers: David M. Thompson, Ed Rubin
Executive producers: Ben Browning, Aaron Ryder, Glen Basner, Milan Popelka, Norman Merry, Christine Langan, Ed Wethered
Director of photography: Christopher Ross
Production designer: Jacqueline Abrahams
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: John F. Lyons
Music: Max Richter
Casting director: Nina Gold
Venue: Palm Springs International Film Festival (Opening Night)
Sales: FilmNation Entertainment
Rated PG-13, 109 minutes