Adapted from Julian Barnes’ celebrated novel, The Sense of an Ending is an exquisite coming-of-old-age story. Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is a divorced retiree in London who runs a store that sells Leicas. He is a shrewd man—just watch how he looks at a customer who can’t afford to buy a camera. He also sizes up—and stares down—a solicitor (Karina Fernandez) who does not have answers to his very basic questions.
Tony is seeing the solicitor because he received a registered letter that indicates he has been willed a diary owned by the late Sarah Ford. Flashbacks reveal that Tony knew Sarah (Emily Mortimer) when he (Billy Howle plays Tony as a young man) was in school, and dated her daughter, Veronica (Freya Mavor).
Tony recounts all this to his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter), who is surprised he never revealed any of this to her before. As The Sense of an Ending unfolds, it toggles back and forth in time to tell the story of how Tony’s past influences his present, and how memory triggers emotion. It becomes clear why Tony has sublimated this episode from his life.
It would spoil the film’s magic (and its precise Chinese Box structure) to reveal much about Tony’s past. What can be said is that after he reconnects with the adult Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) in pursuit of the aforementioned diary, he plumbs depths he didn’t know existed. Some of those depths are his own emotional ones. Tony says in the film’s opening voice over, “Emotions support life,” and by the end of the film, he comes to realize how true that statement is. Tony realizes, albeit late in life, who and what is important to him.
The Sense of an Ending may sound preachy with its life-lessons, and regrets and such, but even with its subplot involving Tony and Margaret’s very pregnant daughter Susie, (Michelle Dockery), that emphasizes the importance and value of life, the film never feels heavy-handed. Moreover, when Tony “stalks” Veronica, his behavior might frustrate viewers, but they will be satisfied by the revelations that occur as a result of his actions.
Director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) manages to pull off this high-wire act because he coaxes such wonderful performances from his cast. Jim Broadbent’s assured performance manages to make Tony both sympathetic and unlikable, a rare combination of poignance and pathos. The Oscar-winning actor fully understands and conveys how Tony went through life with blinders on, and that makes the impact of the knowledge he obtains over the course of the story resonate.
In support, Harriet Walter provides a terrific no-nonsense foil for Broadbent, and the friction-y friendship between these two characters is delicious. As the older Veronica, Charlotte Rampling is typically chilly and reserved, but the extraordinary actress makes the most of her few, indelible scenes. What is more, viewers may feel her presence even when she is not on screen.
In the extended flashback roles, Billy Howle, Joe Alwyn and Freya Mavor all make fine contributions.
The Sense of an Ending may be about Tony finding that socially-constructed emotion of “closure.” He does, to some degree, but only after he discovers something that emotionally sucker-punches him—and viewers.
The Sense of an Ending opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.