“The Sense of an Ending,” the second long feature of Indian director Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”), explores a range of weighty existential problems, such as regret and guilt, anger and jealousy; how memory deceives us, and how we choose to distort it to enable us to bear it. It also ponders the way one person’s actions affect another, even many years after the deed is done, and how the very presence of an individual in another’s life changes the course of that life.
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All these issues are present in the movie, written by playwright Nick Payne based on the novel for which Julian Barnes won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. But neither Payne, for whom this is a first film project, nor Batra, manage to give the questions they explore the necessary depth, leaving them to dissolve into a melodrama that conceals more than it reveals, but never generates the necessary sense of mystery.
Since “The Sense of an Ending” is a British film, it has all the requisite qualities, above all the performances of the cast, led by Jim Broadbent: His very presence makes the hero more substantial than the screenplay allows for. Broadbent plays Tony Webster, the 70-something owner of a small store that sells cameras, especially Leicas, considered to be the best cameras ever made. Tony is divorced and has an unmarried, pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) whom he accompanies to her prenatal classes. He is a grumpy old man, but not aggressively so, and his bite is often tempered by dry humor.
Tony’s quiet routine is interrupted by the arrival of a letter informing him that someone from his past has left him a sum of money and the diary of an old friend. The money interests Tony less than the diary, which he fails to have delivered to him by mail. To see what he can do about it, he contacts Margaret (Harriet Walter), his ex-wife, a lawyer who would prefer to have nothing to do with him. He tells her the story of the diary, which involves a hugely influential episode from his youth. The fact that Margaret, a resolute if cynical woman, only hears about this episode now, so many years after the divorce, suggests something about the nature of their marriage, and perhaps also about the reasons why it ended.
Tony’s story unfolds in a series of flashbacks featuring actor Billy Howle as his younger self – a shy, somewhat awkward student. The story also involves the somewhat enigmatic Veronica (Freya Mavor), Tony’s first love (who gave him his first Leica); his brilliant, charismatic friend Adrian (Joe Alwyn); and Sarah (Emily Mortimer), Veronica’s mother, from whom Veronica apparently gets her inscrutable, nonconforming personality. Tony, Veronica and Adrian have a falling-out when Veronica leaves Tony for Adrian; Tony responds to the betrayal in a blunt way he has managed to push out of his memory until the arrival of the letter, which tells him that Sarah was in possession of the late Adrian’s diary. It was she who left the diary to Tony, but Veronica is refusing to send it to him.
Payne and Batra weave the story between past and present in a conventional way, and the whole movie is directed as a standard British drama. The real problem, however, is that the depiction of the relationships among Tony, Veronica and Adrian lacks depth (Sarah is a minor character, if an important one, in the story). Neither the love Tony felt for Veronica, nor the way he was drawn to Adrian (an attraction that may have had more to it than he is willing to admit) is given real substance. So we are left with only a flimsy basis for understanding the deeply unsettling effect the past has on Tony when it reenters his life in the form of the letter.
Perhaps that is how Tony chooses to remember his past. However, there is a difference between portraying memory as shallow, as this movie does, and showing how a person reworks memory to suit his emotional needs, which is what “The Sense of an Ending” might have done had it pursued its goals in a complex and probing way. Representing the mechanisms of memory onscreen is one of the most challenging tasks a filmmaker can undertake. Some have done it successfully – French director Alain Resnais tops the list – but Batra is not one of them.
Therefore, that “sense of an ending” the movie tries to create never materializes. We leave the theater unsatisfied in two ways: first, the film leaves many questions unanswered; and second, the screenplay and humdrum direction do not make us sufficiently curious about what those answers are. The story itself is somehow not very interesting, and at one point we may even wonder why it is being told to us at all.
These feelings may accord with the overall argument of British literary critic Frank Kermode’s acclaimed theoretical book from 1967, whose title Barnes borrowed (Kermode’s “The Sense of an Ending” explores the ways in which people, both in and out of books, try to give meaning to their lives, in part by locating the ending – or not doing so). But if Payne and Batra are demonstrating Kermode’s theory, they do so in a thin way, without the conceptual validity that would have given the story an additional level and rescued it from seeming bland and trivial.
I’ll end with a somewhat petty claim, but one I think is relevant to the movie’s limitations. It is often a problem to have two actors play the same character at different ages; do we ever really believe that the younger actor grew up to become the older one? In the case of young Tony maturing into Jim Broadbent, it kind of works; but when we are asked to accept that Freya Mavor grows up to be Charlotte Rampling, whom we finally meet toward the end of the movie, it doesn’t work at all. Lovely Mavor looks like dozens of other young women; Rampling’s face is so distinctive that it is impossible to accept Mavor – or, perhaps, any actress – as her younger self. Rampling’s brief appearance adds a quality, authority and elegance to the film which Mavor, for all her pleasantness as young Veronica, never even hints at. Maybe that’s how it is when you’re young, or how it is when people decide what to remember about you; maybe there were signs in the past that Veronica would someday become Charlotte Rampling, and Tony simply missed them. But he did miss them, or doesn’t remember them; therefore, the audience can’t, either.