The Sense of an Ending is an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker prize-winning novel starring Jim Broadbent (we love Jim Broadbent), Harriet Walter (we love Harriet Walter) and Charlotte Rampling (we love, love, love Charlotte Rampling). With such a cast, you’d be minded to think it can’t fail, and it doesn’t in this respect. The performances are transfixing throughout. But it does not satisfy emotionally, as the ending of The Sense of an Ending makes no sense. It’s a (Non)Sense of an Ending. Same with the book, which, on completing, I think I threw across the room with a: what? Is that it?
As directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), and as set in a London where you seem to be able to get from Highgate to a south-west postcode in a jiffy — I couldn’t help noticing; sorry — the film has Broadbent playing Tony Webster, who is divorced, runs a small vintage-camera shop, and is melancholic, grumpy, wry. In other words, it’s a role with ‘Jim’ and ‘Broadbent’ written all over it. And when a role has ‘Jim’ and ‘Broadbent’ written all over it, then you want Jim Broadbent to play it, and he manages to make Tony sympathetic, and even endearing, whereas otherwise he almost certainly wouldn’t be. Tony lives a dull, closed-down, emotionally detached kind of life, which you may not quite believe, perhaps because Broadbent makes Tony rather too alert — those bright-blue eyes, have they ever missed anything? — but you just have to buy this, plus the way he’s suddenly rocked to his core by an event that forces him to Confront. His. Past. This occurs when the mother of his university girlfriend, Veronica, wills him £500 and the diary of his school friend, Adrian, who dated Veronica after they went their separate ways. Why was Tony in her will? Why does she have Adrian’s diary? What does the diary say? We are hyped for disclosure and then, ideally, closure. That, rightly or wrongly, is our narrative expectation. Yet we will be sorely thwarted here.
The action is divided, somewhat prosaically, between two timelines. There’s the past, with Tony flashing back to his schooldays (he is played by Billy Howle as a young man) and his friendship with Adrian (Joe Alwyn) — we are told he was brilliant, yet we see little evidence — as well as his relationship with Veronica (Freya Mavor), who takes him to stay with her family for a very odd kind of weekend filled with sexual tension, and fried eggs gone wrong. And then there’s the now, which has Tony explaining what happened back then, as far as he remembers, to his ex-wife Margaret (Walter; terrific), who is a very long suffering ex-wife. (I think if my ex-husband kept trucking up to go over and over the details of his first-ever girlfriend, I’d mostly draw the curtains, cower behind the sofa and pretend to be out.) The two have a pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery, whom we don’t yet love, but she is young and still has time). And Rampling, meanwhile, plays the Veronica of today. She is awarded the least screen time and is given rather little to do, but Rampling does not need much screen time or much of anything to do to be riveting. Although quite why Veronica is so bitter, we don’t know. And quite why she doesn’t take some responsibility for what occurred we also don’t know. There’s a lot we don’t know, irritatingly.
This is about memory, how we slice and dice our pasts to come up with a self we can live with. Tony does make a discovery — to do with a letter he sent all those years ago; is that it? — although why that makes him the one responsible… you guessed it, we don’t know. But his new self-knowledge, such as it is, has a powerful redemptive effect. Tony has learned to feel again; Tony has learned to feel for his daughter, his ex-wife, even the postman. And we never understand why. We don’t expect every loose end to always be tied up — even though it would be nice — but you do, I think, have the right to expect some understanding of why.
That said, the performances certainly lift this above being yet another film about middle-aged, middle-class people pootling around London (in a jiffy!) while fretting about themselves. But it is entirely about the journey, not the destination. Just so you know.