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The Sense of an Ending

Cover Media logo Cover Media 20/04/2017 covermg.com

In Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, an aging curmudgeon forced to reexamine his past.

Tony is divorced and semi-retired, ploughing what’s left of his energies into a small specialist camera shop. He’s a man who has reached the stage in life where the world no longer quite makes sense, left equally bemused and cheerfully indifferent by news of the Brexit vote, his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walters) and his discoveries accompanying his heavily pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) to an antenatal class.

A strange letter from lawyers for the estate of the mother of his old university girlfriend Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) disrupts his dwindling but satisfied existence. It states that she has left him the diary of an old schoolmate who committed suicide, Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), in her will. Veronica however refuses to pass it onto him, causing Tony to pursue her and the diary with a stalkerish tenacity fuelled by his desire to find a missing piece of his past.

In flashbacks we learn that Tony (now played by Billy Howle) was once a nervous teenager who became attached to Adrian, a precious and philosophical Dylan Thomas fan, at their all-boys school. After the pair go their separate ways to attend university, with Tony heading to Bristol, Adrian to Cambridge, Tony meets and woos Veronica (Freya Mavor), a bohemian girl with an interest in photography and a huge house in the country.

Tony and Veronica’s relationship progresses, as the couple engage in romantic fumbles in cars and listen to Donovan records. He even meets her parents, including her coquettish mum Sarah (Emily Mortimer). However the relationship eventually peters out. Several months later he learns that Veronica and Adrian are now together, having apparently met while she was visiting her brother at Cambridge. Tony remembers penning a vicious letter to the couple, before casting it aside.

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But now his quest for the diary is the search to discover the reason and meaning of his friend’s death.

Barnes’ novel relied on the device of an unreliable narrator. In fact it was its main theme - that how our imperfect memory of the past can distort our view of our actions, and ourselves. This doesn’t translate perfectly onto the screen. In the novel, the central question of Adrian’s death is obscured on the page as Tony is relating the tale. In the cinema the need to provide visual clues to the audience mean that the film unfolds more like a conventional mystery.

Batra tries to get round this by showing us more of Tony’s interactions with his ex and daughter, as they try to persuade him to live in the present rather than the past. It gives the film’s cast, a who’s who of British character acting, the chance to show off their impressive skills but struggles to capture quite what made the original novel so intriguing.

That said, the cast elevates what could have been a drab retelling into a film that’s poignant and manages to explore the novel’s theme of how the facts of the past become distorted as surely as possibilities also disappear into the rear view mirror as we age.

Fans of Barnes’ book may not be entirely satisfied, but The Sense of an Ending is worth watching for Broadbent’s performance alone, and Batra has created a film that is both moving and explores many of the profound themes present in the source material.

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