Why learn to live with mistakes and regret when you can simply grow old and forget about them? In The Sense of an Ending, BAFTA nominated Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra begs this question in what is his first English language feature. Adapted from Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name, the plot centres around retired divorcee Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a grumpy old man who receives some post that leads him to reflect on his youth. The letter is from the recently departed mother of Veronica Ford (Freya Mavor), a girl that he dated years earlier. Strangely he is left a small sum of money and a diary in her will, and while he is interested to find out more, a trip down memory lane reveals forgotten truths from his past.
Like the book it is based upon, the unreliable narrator technique is implemented which lends the story an intriguing incoherency. The pacing is slow and meandering as you’d expect, more thinker than thriller as an old man pieces together the distant fragments of his memory. There are no good guys or bad guys in the piece, but the narrative highlights the idea that we are all flawed in some way, and that everyone makes mistakes. Nick Payne’s script offers more clarity in the storytelling than the source material, but the editing of the flashback sequences as well as Tony’s internal monologue effectively convey the uncertainties, exploring the concept that anybody’s ‘life story’ is only as accurate as their memory’s version of events.
Described regularly as a curmudgeon by his daughter and estranged wife, Tony isn’t your typical leading man, coming across as pompous and pernickety on occasion. However, thanks to a terrific portrayal by the ever-reliable Jim Broadbent, he possesses enough likeability to make him good company for a couple of hours. The performances from a hugely impressive supporting cast are as scattered and fleeting as Tony’s reminiscences, with stand-outs from experienced actresses in Emily Mortimer as Veronica’s mysterious mother Sarah and Charlotte Rampling as older Veronica. Matthew Goode also has an interesting yet all too brief role to play as Tony’s fast-talking school teacher Mr. Hunt. His exchange on historical theories with Tony and his classmates spark themes that prove to be quite pivotal as the plot unravels.
The Sense of an Ending is thought-provoking and quietly moving, and Tony’s character study evokes reflection at anyone’s own life. There’s more to protagonist Tony Webster than first meets the eye, and Broadbent does a stellar job at slowly revealing his subtle complexities and giving him the necessary depth. Batra’s astute direction and Payne’s debut screenplay remain true to the tone of the novel but succeed in elevating the story to the stature of the screen, teasing the loose ends that leave us wondering about the unanswered questions of life.