As subtle and dry of a film about latent regret and borderline stalkerish behaviour as you’re likely to see, filmmaker Ritesh Batra and screenwriter Nick Payne’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of an Ending scales back what could have become eye-rolling melodrama into something that’s deliberately restrained without sacrificing emotional heft. A partial period piece devoid of nostalgia that constantly acknowledges its protagonist’s dubious aims, The Sense of an Ending doesn’t surprise very much via its narrative construction, but Batra’s relaxed and convincing tone is a breath of fresh air.
Aging Londoner Anthony Webb (Jim Broadbent) leads an eventful, but solitary and unexceptional life. He operates a tiny camera repair shop, dines frequently with his equally cantankerous ex-wife (Harriet Walter), and is helping his expecting daughter (Michelle Dockery) prepare for the arrival of her first child. Anthony lives in a groove built of routine and simplicity, and it’s thrown off by the arrival of a letter from a barrister. Sarah Ford (played by Emily Mortimer in flashbacks), the mother of Anthony’s ex-girlfriend from university, Veronica (Freya Mavor, in flashbacks), has passed away. She has bequeathed unto Anthony a small sum of money and a diary that belonged to former friend and classmate, Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn). Anthony gets the money just fine, but Veronica (played by Charlotte Rampling in the present) refuses to release the diary to him, going as far as ignoring him and all his requests at any cost. The naturally obstinate and justice minded Anthony grows furious at Veronica’s heel dragging and begins a series of events that will force Anthony to confront the reasons why she harbours so much resentment towards him.
Batra, who made quite a name for himself with his debut feature The Lunchbox a few years back, has a knack for the kind of dramatic restraint needed to make material as delicate as The Sense of an Ending work. When it comes to foreshadowing the big reveals contained within Payne’s screenplay, he’s a lot less subtle. The character beats and the slow descent of Anthony as a relatable character in the present day parts of the story are handled expertly, but the constant prodding and reminders that swerves are on the way are decidedly less subtle and sometimes border on annoyance.
At its heart, The Sense of an Ending is story about an old man angered by being made to feel discomfort when he believes that he has earned the right to feel milder emotions, annoyances, and setbacks. In short, it’s a film about misplaced, white, elderly entitlement. But the pacing of The Sense of an Ending and its employing of precisely placed university set flashbacks as a sort of shell game works better in Barnes’ novel than it does on screen. Batra’s film is much better in the present than it is in the past, but since one informs the other it’s hard not to see the bits of backstory as being somewhat laboured. The performers in these flashbacks put in some fine work, especially Mortimer and Alwyn who have to functions as lynchpins for the plot that follows their arcs.
Such problems are endemic of the adaptation itself, but Batra places faith in his cast and the overall themes of Barnes’ story to carry things through. Quite wisely, Batra and Payne (delivering his first feature screenplay here) make no bones about Anthony’s less than stellar behaviour and borderline contemptibility. They never try to make Anthony into a sympathetic or inherently likeable figure, and the always capable Broadbent never plays him as such. Broadbent plays Anthony as equally twisted as he is unextraordinary, a victim of his own repressed sadness and anger. Scenes where Broadbent’s Anthony goes toe to toe with Rampling’s flawed, but justifiably mad Veronica and Walter’s supportive, but aloof ex-wife bring out the best in everyone involved. In every word and pause, these performers know they’re telling a tragic story that the main protagonist refuses to see as a tragedy. The anger simmers instead of explodes, like a dying fire that someone keeps trying to reignite.
It could have remained an actors’ showcase, but Batra’s laid back style of dramatic storytelling allows the filmmaker to gently coax deeper themes from the material for the performers to wrestle with. His sense of plotting might not be the subtlest, but Batra knows that The Sense of an Ending rises and falls on realistic, earned emotions. Anthony is a stoic figure who has crafted his personality around guilt that he refuses to acknowledge, and that’s a hard film to make without resorting to melodrama or grand theatrics. Batra plays things out via lengthy, quiet conversations where people only raise their voice when they’re ready to leave said discussions out of frustration or pain. It takes its main character to task for his actions, and while the viewer knows that Anthony is in the wrong from almost the first time they meet him, Batra carefully balances the material in a way to avoid any clear cut judgement about Anthony as a human being. Anthony is troubled, but the character doesn’t know that, so the viewer has to be kept at arm’s length from said troubles. It’s an internal story where the viewer – like it or not – has to be placed into Anthony’s headspace, and Batra conveys that with great delicacy.
If the flashback sequences were integrated a little more seamlessly, The Sense of an Ending would be quite the achievement, but as it stands, it’s a rather well made adult drama that will captivate well enough on its own merits.