Very British and very literary, “The Sense of an Ending” isn’t your typical happy-at-the-end-of-the-day tale of elderly English eccentrics doing alternately naughty and silly things on the way to old-age contentment and camaraderie—the sort of stuff that pleases more mature American audiences at Sunday matinees and so has become a staple of Blighty’s film industry. Though its linchpin is a canny performance by Jim Broadbent as a grumpy septuagenarian who’s forced to learn some life lessons, Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ well-received novel is a more pungent affair entirely, though told with a degree of restraint that’s true to its pedigree.
Nick Payne’s screenplay shuffles together the two parts of the novel that were presented separately on the page. It opens with divorced retiree Tony Webster (Broadbent) getting up at the same time every morning to attend to his hole-in-the-wall shop specializing exclusively in vintage Leica cameras. A fussily hidebound, punctilious man who treats ancillary figures like the postman with an abruptness that’s less contemptuous than simply oblivious, he even seems vaguely ill-at-ease with his daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery), who’s having a child on her own and whom he almost apologetically accompanies to her birthing class.
Tony’s predictable existence is ruffled by the delivery of a letter from a lawyer, which he takes a good long time opening. When he gets around to doing so, it reveals that Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer), mother of his old high school flame Veronica (Freya Mavor), has died and left him a modest bequest—a small amount of money and something else that was supposed to be included with the letter but wasn’t. He eventually learns that the item is a diary written by a schoolmate named Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), whom—we learn in flashbacks—the young Tony (Billy Howle) looked up to (and perhaps had a crush on), and who later developed a relationship with Veronica that ended in his suicide.
The problem for persnickety (and perhaps obsessive) Webster is that Veronica, the executrix of her mother’s estate, refuses to hand over the diary. That induces Tony to ask his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter), a lawyer, for help, and to tell her the story of his time with Veronica and Adrian. When Margaret can—or simply will—offer no assistance, Tony takes it upon himself to seek his inheritance, eventually forcing a meeting with Veronica (now played by Charlotte Rampling), which, as a result of his further sleuthing (which both Margaret and Susie call stalking), reveals the existence of a mentally-challenged young man also named Adrian (Andrew Buckley), whom Tony takes to be the son Veronica had by Adrian, the unexpected pregnancy perhaps being the cause of his father’s suicide. That presumption links up with an incident from the boys’ school days, when Adrian challenged Mr. Hunt (Matthew Goode), their history teacher, about his discipline, arguing that historical reconstruction merely represents “the point where the imperfection of memory meets the inadequacy of documentation.” And the example he cited was the recent suicide of a classmate who, it was rumored, killed himself when he learned that his girlfriend was pregnant.
That, of course, provides the key to the puzzle at its center—how much truth there is there in Tony’s reconstruction of his own past? The title of Barnes’ book refers to a literary theory that relates to fiction being the means by which a person tries to make sense of his life, a means that involves suppression of unpleasant memories and the invention of positive excuses for his conduct. Margaret suggests that Tony isn’t giving her the full story about his relationship with Veronica and Adrian, and as it turns out, she’s right. As the narrative continues, the truth will emerge, but in sudden bursts of recollection. And as it turns out, Adrian’s diary is of no help—Veronica, whose anger with Tony is palpable, claims to have burned it. It is up to Webster, and by extension us, to work out what happened, while also tending to the needs of his daughter.
Completing the puzzle necessitates picking up clues that are strewn throughout the picture. What, for example, is the significance of the trip that young Tony takes to visit Veronica’s family—Sarah, her somewhat goofy husband David (James Wilby) and her smoothly handsome older brother (Edward Holcroft)? Tony will tell us, very quickly, in a montage at the close that’s curiously reminiscent of that in “The Usual Suspects,” but elsewhere Barnes and Payne seem intent on misleading us. Early on, for instance, there is a scene with a suspiciously inquisitive customer at Tony’s shop, but nothing comes of it. And the periodic digressions to demonstrate Webster’s fuddy-duddy personality seem intended to impede a resolution, most notably a sequence in which he enlists a couple of old classmates (emphasizing the adjective) in the search for answers, not only so that they can jog his memory about how Veronica and Adrian met, but so that they can teach him the mysteries of Google. One might also like a bit more information than the picture provides on Tony’s past. What was his profession, for example—or was his entire life devoted to the camera shop?
Still, despite a bit of frustration along the way, “The Sense of an Ending” is a film that challenges you to figure things out rather than have them spoon-fed to you, as is the usual practice nowadays. And it gives Broadbent, one of Britain’s most reliable character actors, the relatively rare opportunity to shine in a lead role worthy of his gifts. He brings a lifetime of experience to the part, adding little grace notes throughout that may be slightly hammy but make Webster a far more likable, multi-layered character than he might have been. He’s challenged, in the picture’s latter sections, by Rampling, whose fierceness teases out a measure of vulnerability in Broadbent that makes Tony even more human. They work brilliantly together. The rest of the performances are less exceptional, but all the cast contribute solid work, with Howle and Mavor in particular bringing soulfulness to the youthful Tony and Veronica.
With impeccable technical work from cinematographer Christopher Ross and production designer Jacqueline Abrahams and editing by John F. Lyons that manages to keep the tale’s chronological shifts reasonably clear, “The Sense of an Ending” might be too rarefied for many viewers, but for those with a bent for intellectually stimulating pieces with a literary bent—think Neil LaBute’s adaptation of A.S. Byatt’s “Possession”—this is a film to search out.