Memory, betrayal, and bittersweet love reign in Ritesh Batra's understated adaptation of the 2011 Man Booker Prize winning novel by Julian Barnes.
Julian Barnes’ short, evocative novel The Sense of an Ending is littered with the thematic veins of memory, closure and the way we self-edit our experiences to protect our historical present. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ritesh Batra’s low-key adaptation revolves around itself almost as much as it intertwines repeated images of circles into its plot. What we get as a result is a comfortable though subdued mid-week take-your-grandparents-along reworking of the 2011 Man Booker Prize winning book, which seems to implore its audience to at least skim the novel before buying a ticket. Either that or it has far too much confidence its audience has the capacity for inferring the various generational ‘plot twists’ strewn about the ending.
Whilst the film’s climax feels a little ineffectual, it can be forgiven. For it abides by its apparent internal logic that sees some version of main character Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent and Billy Howle) in nearly every scene, half of which are flashbacks to Tony’s sixth-form years, including an awkward, sexual-tension ridden weekend to his new girlfriend’s house. The missing gaps that can only be filled by paying close attention to vague off-comments, pro-filmic symbolism and weighted close-ups, would be happily understood had the flashbacks included what Tony could never have seen. Still, it creates significant lack of sensation in the third-act which very nearly shrinks its message to bloodless slush. Luckily, the rest of the film indulges in as much in the realm of thematically tight and admirably constructed as its endeavour to be emotionally engaging, which makes it all pretty darn good.
Tony, now a retired divorcee who runs a second-hand vintage camera shop in London, is elegantly played by Broadbent, a grumpy, unsociable geriatric with the wit and proud naivety that only Broadbent could adequately fulfil. After receiving a letter from his first girlfriend’s, (Veronica, splendidly played by Charlotte Rampling and Freya Mavor), recently deceased mother, leaving him the diary of his old school friend Adrian, who went on to date Veronica before committing suicide, Tony is forced to revisit a past he put away long ago. The diary is being withheld by Veronica, who reserves a grudge over Tony after being sent an incredibly angry letter from him which Tony fails to recall.
And boasting a third-act that’s both equally stupefying and alienating, it’s no use saying there wasn’t an attempt at ambition here. The subtleties that guide the plot through to its climax are, indeed, commendable. It’s a tone that’s reminiscent of 2015 effort 45 Years, and follows very similar thematic tendencies. But the film’s portfolio of venerable performances and a worthy script are what makes The Sense of An Ending stick out. There’s just something about it that makes it utterly engrossing. Whether that’s the sense of elusiveness of its ending or the finesse of the portrayals it boasts, I’m unsure. Either way, I’m pretty damn impressed.
The Sense of An Ending, directed by Ritesh Batra, is distributed in the UK by CBS Pictures. Certificate 15.