“You can right it or you can just let it go.”
The Sense of an Ending offers, in no particular order:
-A script that burns away the rougher edges of the work it is adapted from;
-Wide shots that offer a hint of the depth generated by the original novel;
-A limping score that too often drowns out moments of contemplation;
-Added sub-plots that attempt to make this story an easier pill to swallow for the audience;
Julian Barnes’ novel, released in 2011 and rewarded with the Man Booker Prize, told the story of an older man sorting through his memories for the answer to a puzzling will and to soothe (or agitate) his own sense of guild. The Sense of an Ending as a film tells much the same story, but with enough deviations and additions to woefully interrupt the tiring unrest set forth from the book. Adaptation, especially of a work this slim and concise, certainly calls for tweaking on behalf of the screenwriter (here, Nick Payne). But nearly every modification only serves to flatten what this story was getting at. The film clearly has similar goals, as repeatedly spelled out by its characters. But it somehow travels less far despite trying to achieve far more.
Jim Broadbent plays the aforementioned old man, Tony Webster. Even this casting acts as something of a concession, with the actor’s warm face always mildly undercutting the curmudgeonly aspects of Tony’s actions. That isn’t to say that Broadbent isn’t skilled; he certainly is, and brings as much gruffness as possible to, say, scenes where he ignores the regular pleasantries of his mailman. This detail, and many others, is played for a quaint laugh, which is certainly a direction to pick. Director Ritesh Batra works overtime to make Tony’s personality quirky and to keep the tone pleasant, so that he may slip the rug out from under audiences when the situation grows direr.
That speaks to issues to come, however, but in the beginning and throughout The Sense of an Ending is perfectly watchable. Tony goes about his day, repairing cameras and eating solitary lunches on a nearby park bench. Here, Batra pulls out the one stylistic touch that makes an impact: he’s constantly running Tony through constricted spaces, like the shop, or opening the camera up wide to see the entirety of Tony’s surroundings. In both instances, the man is but a piece of the world around him, and in those latter wide shots it often takes a second to locate the protagonist. Given how rooted this tale is in individuality versus more empathetic perspective, it’s a handy tool and one that instills the emotional underpinning that the script sorely lacks.
As the story goes on, we’re introduced to Tony’s pregnant daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) and ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter). Tony interacts with both, though there appear to be clear barriers within the group; Susie perturbed by her father in certain ways though never so much to make the audience sweat. A letter, sent from the estate of Tony’s ex-girlfriend’s mother, brings the real fissures in life forward. Tony is left to wonder why this woman, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), has left him five hundred pounds and a diary. The latter item isn’t included in the package, however, because Sarah’s daughter Veronica has kept it from him. Indignant, Tony sets out to retrieve what is legally his and in the process uncovers corners of his past that have collected cobwebs over the years, or details he had never been privy to before.
Much of this is taken straight from the novel, namely Tony’s current day interactions with Veronica, who is played with suspicious steeliness by Charlotte Rampling. She appears to hate Tony, and for a time he cannot piece together why. Then comes a letter, and with it pieces of the man he thought he had left behind. Around this point, we arrive at the central issue of adapting this story as is. Tony is a rather bland man, one stuck within his own narrow lane. He’s not especially unique or profound. That is largely the point of the novel, and in prose form it becomes a stinging indictment of how easily we can let life and decision slide past us. Broadbent’s natural warmth runs at odds with these details, but they are vital to the mystery unraveling as it does. Filming this tale at all requires infusing it with a level of humanity that the book coyly tinkers with.
When Broadbent and Rampling are together onscreen you can see hints of these people as they are, specifically how Veronica puts Tony in his place merely by glancing at him. That recalls their past relationship, and much of the film is told in flashback. We see Tony’s school days, and his years at university where he met Veronica and, briefly, her mother Sarah. And we are also introduced to Adrian, a classmate and friend of Tony’s who factors largely into the unfolded mystery. All of this is less important on its own than it is in the context of memory, the fragility of pulling up past events where Tony was only aware of a fraction of what was going on. Batra plays up these scenes however, shooting them with a gauzy quality and playing up the emotions expressed at the time. It’s unclear if what we are witnessing is what actually occurred or simply Tony’s memories. That is a vital distinction, and its lack of clarity spells out the central divide between novel and film.
As a book, The Sense of an Ending was about the process of nostalgia, how impossible uncovering one’s own past can be. The movie settles for being nostalgic, indulging in the emotions that the novel is more interested in examining. This may sound more directly emotional, but it has the opposite effect: where the book reached towards the way we experience life, the film flattens that experience by becoming yet another piece of art fit to cool in a pale amber glow. Look no further than the most significant addition to the movie: Susie’s pregnancy and eventual baby. The Sense of an Ending reaches the point where the novel concluded and then keeps going. It doesn’t do this to offer any new or intriguing insight, but rather to curb the massive blow dealt by certain reveals. Instead of a great treatise on the infallibility of memory and the accompanying pangs of guilt, we get a pat resolution that sees Tony having learned a lesson and become a better person. The Sense of an Ending’s greatest sin, and clearest refutation of its source material, is to offer a resolution at all. That it does so is a creative choice, but making that decision so lazily is insulting and cheap. Life is complex, and art shouldn’t take on the topic of that complexity if it doesn’t have the guts to follow through.