It has been six years since I read Julian Barnes’ 2011 novella. I found it well- written, but distant; so complicated, that I read it over again. Unreliable narrators aside, the book did not touch me emotionally. It was a mystery to be solved. Not so with the beautiful film of the same name. ” The Sense Of An Ending” is matchless in showing the disconnects between people, memory, and truth ; but, the film makes us feel it.
Much of this successful emotional connecting is because of the character actor, Jim Broadbent. He deserves an Oscar for this performance. On screen almost constantly, his face moves in life’s flow. He is the young lover, the admiring friend, the left husband, the respectful, yet curmudgeonly father, the stalker of an old love and the impetus of pain. Billy Howle plays Tony’s younger self, a high school senior in love for the first time. His innocence commands each frame. Then, forty some years are lived that we are told very little about.
Broadbent takes over the two-part story in his sixties. We know he is divorced and that he and his savvy ex-wife care for each other. They have a lesbian daughter who is about to give birth and both parents are supportive. Harriet Walter plays the ex, and she is amazing to watch. Insightful, no nonsense, and humorously self-possessed. We see a modern woman who is surprised at how out-of-touch her ex is with his motivations, let alone his feelings. ” You can’t see what is right under your nose.”
Her ex-husband has never talked about his first love or their break-up. When the mother of his first love dies, it is oddly Tony who is to inherit. Not money, but a diary. And not the diary of his first love, but of his Cambridge friend, Adrian Finn.
Why would this artifact from his youth be in the possession of the wacky mother of Tony’s first girlfriend ? Secrets abound, it seems.
We learn that Tony’s adolescent rejected-lover, revenge letter may have contributed to his friend’s suicide, and certainly destroyed his first love’s promise. Since his truth is now warped by guilt, we are led to question reality and our place in our own.
Especially effective is the placement of the older Tony Webster ( Broadbent) in the memories of his youth. We see and feel him acutely in his efforts to go back and reimagine his story.
Director Ritesh Batra work continues to enthrall ( “The Lunchbox” , reviewed here on 2/9/15). The 37 year-old, Indian film-maker has my following. Likewise, playwright Nick Payne has adapted a very difficult Booker Prize Winner into a reflection for the ages. Think of it as a coming-of-age story in reverse.
The re-emerging use of the postal service and the camera store as words and images to aid in the recording of time and events is lovely. Special care is taken when Tony tears a postcard or a photo into fragments of distain.
Story linkage and movement are often propelled through communal dining. Restaurants, bars, cafes, school dining halls, and coffee houses and family kitchens are the most frequent settings. When a hospital room or a bridge is shot, it points to a healing that the book’s more nihilistic world view avoids.
I loved this film. Who doesn’t consider how our decisions would have been different if we knew in our youth what has been revealed to us now ? As Tony narrates his memories he muses, ” You want your emotions to support your life as it comes…” The flashbacks burst out in the opening of a door, or in a hot skillet set in water, or in the popping of a knuckle. This is lovely film-making.
Even when Tony first meets Veronica’s hyper-sexualized family: the flirty, competitive mother , the sicko brother , and the basin-unloading father , maturity would have helped him navigate the perils. Sad, hidden tales are no doubt here. Their daughter Veronica’s cool exterior and teasing maneuvers went beyond a type. Actress Freya Mavor is terrific in her coy coolness and coquettish playfulness.
Charlotte Rampling is the sixtyish Veronica. Showing how much can be between-the-lines is what Rampling excels at in every performance. ( “45 Years” , reviewed here 2/7/16). She doesn’t seem to suffer from the imperfections of memory. She gave Tony his first camera. She told in question form: ” You are quite cowardly aren’t you?” when he let her lead their relationship. She, as executor of her mother’s estate, burns Adrian’s diary. It is she that says that Tony has no moral right to it. She hands him his vengeful letter, which she has kept for over forty years and forcefully says with extradinary coolness, ” Because you seem to need something to win.”
She leaves; he stalks her to Highgate Station. We know she has suffered. We know in his ex- wife’s words that he needs ” to mop the drool”! This is about more than “closing the circle”. It is not about “shrine building”. It is about how we make sense out of our lives even when we have hurt others by misjudging them.
The film’s score is beautiful. Many songs are nostalgically about time. “Time On My Side” and ” If I Had You” to name just two. A birth and a rebirth give hope to a story that had none, and the four-second screen hold in the last shot over “camera repairs” is the attention to detail that film auteurs love. I say, ” Don’t miss this one,” especially if you have read the book on which it is based.