Most of us struggle with some aspect of our pasts.
A relationship that ended badly. Behavior we regret. Guilt. Loss.
“The Sense of an Ending” is about one man’s attempts to reconcile his present with what came before and the rationalizations and self-delusions that allow him to finally come to terms.
Ritesh Batra’s film, adapted from Julian Barnes’ award-winning novel by Nick Payne (author of the trippy stage drama “Constellations”), unfolds simultaneously both in the present and nearly half a century earlier.
In the here and now, Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) operates a hole-in-the-wall camera shop specializing in antique Leicas. He’s a semi-curmudgeonly divorced man, but he has a civil if mildly confrontational relationship with his ex, Margaret (Harriet Walter), and with their daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), a single mother-to-be (Tony accompanies her to birthing classes).
His rather dull life is enlivened by a mystery from his past. Tony receives legal notice that he’s been named a beneficiary in the will of a woman he hasn’t seen in 50 years.
In flashbacks, we see how young Tony (Billy Howle) fell for rich girl Veronica (Freya Mavor) and was treated to a long weekend at the home of her family. There he met Veronica’s rather flamboyant (and possibly predatory) mother, Sarah (Emily Mortimer).
Anyway, Tony broke up with Veronica, who rebounded by starting up with Tony’s friend and classmate Adrian (Joe Alwyn). Not long into that relationship the sensitive Adrian mysteriously killed himself.
It is Adrian’s diary which the late Sarah has bequeathed to Tony. Why did she cling for decades to the journal of her daughter’s dead boyfriend?
And why is her daughter Veronica (played as an adult by the sublime Charlotte Rampling) unwilling to turn over Adrian’s diary despite the threat of legal action?
Goodness. What bombshells might reside on its pages?
“What you end up remembering isn’t exactly what you actually experience,” the older Tony says at one point, and that’s very much the film’s theme. We can never be sure which flashbacks are truthful and which are colored by Tony’s perceptions and biases.
That’s where his ex wife Margaret comes in. . . she has an uncanny ability to sense when her former husband is fudging and pin him to the wall.
“The Sense of an Ending” is slow going. Its little mysteries are revealed slowly and without much fanfare, and it takes most of the picture’s running time for the big picture to emerge.
The good news is that when it does, it feels worth the wait. This is due not only to the novel’s slow-percolating revelations but also to a terrific cast.
Broadbent is particularly good. Tony is the sort of character who could be downright unpleasant (at one point he virtually stalks the adult Veronica); this actor’s unforced geniality allows us to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Particularly effective is Mortimer, who has only a few minutes of screen time but manages to make an indelible impression.