A sensitive, complex adaptation of the Man Booker Prize-winning novel by Julian Barnes, “The Sense of an Ending” is an affecting exploration of memory and closure. Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, the unreliable narrator of his own life, a solitary divorced gent running a tiny London shop that repairs and sells Leica cameras. His few connections are to his unusually tolerant ex-wife (Harriet Walter) and their beloved daughter (Michelle Dockery), who is soon to give birth to her first child.
The past comes calling in the form of a solicitor’s letter informing him he has been left a small sum of money — and an unidentified item — in the will of a woman he knew briefly in college. If this sounds confusing, tangential and random, that’s because it is. He met the late woman only once, but as she was the mother of his college girlfriend, Veronica, memories of the weekend he spent in her home loom large. The memory of Veronica herself looms even larger; when we first see her in flashback, she is holding a Leica camera.
The film proceeds through the present day, as Tony attempts to wrangle the mystery item from Veronica, first through lawyers, then by pursuing her in person. He, meanwhile, is pursued by memories we see in lengthy flashbacks. His relationship with Veronica was frustrating, and she ultimately dumped him for his best friend. As the film ambles along, however, we learn the terrible fate of his best friend.
This story proceeds with a tension between assumption and actuality, filtered through the perspective of Tony. He knows things we don’t, and then, after a long stretch in which little happens, his perspective is upended multiple times. There are enough plot twists for an action film, yet this film is anything but. Most of the action takes place in the past, while the reverberations echo through the present, where we find Tony gradually opening up to and connecting with his family. Sometimes a film about characters’ repressed emotions can, naturally, feel stilted, but these performances are wonderful.
Fortunately Charlotte Rampling shows up to portray present-day Veronica, and no film is ever made less interesting by her steely gaze. Her character’s flesh-and-blood appearance is a wonderful contrast to Tony’s hazy, distant recollection of his unrequited, youthful love for her, and she is a bracing jolt in an intentionally nebulous film.
The shocks of the film are presented so obliquely that you almost aren’t sure you saw them. In this way, “The Sense of an Ending” is a brilliant evocation of the tricks of the mind. It is almost uncanny in its portrayal of memories, and the little echoes and touchstones that carry from the past to the present unite the performances of the same characters by casts of two different ages.
Ultimately, this film presents a high level of drama in a distinctly low-key way, and the result is refreshing but still very affecting. It portrays later adulthood in a depth missing from a lot of films, with nary a Viagra joke in sight. Taken from a short and deceptively complex novel, this adaptation does justice to Julian Barnes’ work, and adds visual cues unique to this form.
Adults looking for an honest but not depressing film will find “The Sense of An Ending” rewarding. Every performance is superb, and it brings elements of a mystery story into what is essentially a character study, one which goes into fascinating detail about misunderstood events that made the character who he is, a concept open to interpretation even as he approaches old age.
“The Sense of An Ending” is currently available to rent.