In The Sense of an Ending, Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a curmudgeonly camera shop proprietor whose habitual risk-aversion has cost him a life of intimacy. He comes from the Philip Larkin school of chronically repressed Little Englanders.
Flashbacks show that when Tony was a young man (Billy Howle) in the mid-to-late 1960s, his sexual diffidence cost him his first love, Veronica. Having shown off Veronica to his three closest schoolmates—a key incident in the novel questionably omitted from the movie—Tony was appalled to learn she’d become involved with the most brilliant and nihilistic of them, Adrian (Joe Alwyn, the lead in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk).
Tony subsequently married and divorced Margaret (Harriet Walter). In the film’s present, he remains on cordial terms for her while frustrating her with his insensitivity. He helps out their pregnant single daughter (Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery) by accompanying her to a pre-natal class, for example, but there’s nothing zealous about his parenting. Though he rationalizes his disengagement as a lifestyle choice, his bluff exterior can’t mask his alienation. Broadbent makes jaunty quips by Tony sound affected, a trait of his class and type.
Adapted from Julian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Nick Payne, the second feature directed by Ritesh Batra is a stylistically unremarkable but gripping drama that treats memories with more suspicion than his previous venture, The Lunchbox (2013). In that popular Indian romance, the reminiscences shared by the Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan characters forged a bond between them. The Sense of an Ending‘s Tony—an unreliable narrator in the book—has edited his past to avoid the trauma of his breakup from Veronica, the unacknowledged defining tragedy of his life.
Forty years later, he is forced to confront it. Veronica’s mother, Sarah, whom he’d met once when spending a weekend at their home, bequeathes him £500 and a diary. Veronica, her mother’s executor, refuses to give him the diary, which was Adrian’s. Tony demands to know why, and she grudgingly agrees to meet him. Skins star Freya Mavor plays the young Veronica as a Marianne Faithfull-like enigma who isn’t going to wait around to be passionately desired by Tony; in the role of the older Veronica, Charlotte Rampling maintains the character’s mysteriousness but treats Tony with polite contempt. Hooding her eyes and offering him a Sphinx-like smile that could be a sneer, she has a reason to hate him that’s much deeper than his failure as a boyfriend.
Broadbent and Rampling’s performances are matched by that of Emily Mortimer. Though she has scant screen time as Sarah, a charismatic but sexually frustrated homemaker married to a bore, Mortimer haunts the rest of the film after her brief appearance. It’s implied Sarah would have slept with Tony if he hadn’t been dating Veronica…or did she sleep with him anyway? A repeated shot of her waving at him after he’d watched her hanging out the washing—she enjoyed his admiration—becomes the movie’s erotic totem, but you have to see it to know why.
In a flashback to one of the high-school history classes that Adrian would dominate with his bleak pronouncements, Tony once piped up that history is the lies of the victors and the self-delusions of the defeated. There are no victors in Barnes’s novel, though the older, self-delusional Tony thinks himself one until the unveiling of Veronica’s history in the intervening years brings him to a reckoning, making him rue his vicious parting shot to Veronica and Adrian all those years ago.
The film is necessarily more comforting. The birth of Tony’s grandchild shows he is capable of change—that he has dwelled in his ivory tower (a narcissistic pique) for too long. One suspects he’ll be able to approach his eventual ending with more equanimity that the Tom Courtenay character will be allowed by his wife—played by Rampling—in 2015’s analogous 45 Years (2015). Once you’ve been “Rampled,” you stay Rampled.
The Sense of an Ending is on release in the U.S.