Ritesh Batra/ UK USA/ 2017/ 108 mins
In cinemas nationwide now.
Secrets from the distant past set the scene for a meditation on love and loss from the director of The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra. Based on the Booker Prize winning novella by Julian Barnes, Jim Broadbent is Tony, a grumpy, anti-social divorcee, grumbling his way into old age. Only his cordially combative relationship with his ex-wife (Harriet Walter), and the the latter stages of his daughter’s (Michelle Dockery) pregnancy appear to give him much purpose. That is until he receives a solicitor’s letter informing him that the mother of an old girlfriend has died, bequeathing him a small amount of money and an old diary.
It’s almost inevitable that comparisons will be made between The Sense of an Ending and Andrew Haigh’s splendid 45 Years. Both deal in relationships reaching their twilight years (albeit a divorced couple in this case) being thrown into chaos. In both cases the catalyst is a letter that dredges up a past forcibly submerged and chips off the concrete wellies. Both feature a spiky, imperious performance from Charlotte Rampling. However, where Haigh’s film revelled in its uncertainties and lack of resolution while remaining thoroughly satisfying, The Sense of an Ending feels like it stretches towards profundity without actually achieving it.
It’s certainly watchable, if a little drawn-out. Broadbent is reliably great at teasing out the threads of empathy from his character’s crotchety armour, and his scenes with Walter (which Batra neatly uses as framing devices for his flashback to Broadbent’s sixties youth) are the strongest of the film. The sense of affection remaining diamond-hard under their mutual antagonism is palpable. Also, the stylistic ploy of having the old Tony literally wandering through his old memories as a bridge between past and present is beautifully done, and reminiscent of a similar use in Hong Khaou’s gorgeous Lilting.
Sadly, the film’s big reveal doesn’t have the impact it has on the page. Barnes’ slim volume is dense with subtext looming large between the ink, with Tony having more of the classic unreliable narrator than Broadbent can possibly get across on screen. It all ends up feeling like something of a dark squib whereas it feels shattering on the page. It could be partly down to writer Nick Payne’s decision to restrict voice-over to a brief contextualising prologue and epilogue. Usually less is indeed more with such narration, but you don’t quite get the weight of the memory vaults being levered open. It’s also tied up a little too neatly, which belies the complexity of human relationships Batra is trying to convey.
The Sense of an Ending is a handsome, nicely made piece which, while not at all disastrous, merely stumbles along its meandering road to its unsatisfying revelation. There was gold to be mined from its revered source, but it’s rather a misfire.