The Sense of an Ending Softens the Novel’s Emotional Punch

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Jim Broadbent and Michelle Dockery in The Sense of an Ending. Photo: CBS Films

In The Sense of an Ending, Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, an emotionally shut down older man who learns, bit by troubling bit, that the events of his past are not as he remembers them. In his 20s, something momentous happened to close friends that he missed entirely. And the event that he didn’t miss — that he was at the center of — he thoroughly repressed. What kicks off the film is a posthumous letter from Sarah Ford, the mother of his old girlfriend, Veronica. Sarah says that she has left Tony a diary written by a long-dead school chum, Adrian. But the diary isn’t enclosed: Her daughter is mysteriously unwilling to give it up. And so begins Tony’s journey to retrieve that diary and discover the source of Veronica’s intransigence — a journey that will explode the foundation of his life.

Julian Barnes’s 2011 novel (which won the Man Booker Prize) is told from Tony’s point of view. The first section, in which the character speaks of his school days, is breezy and dispassionate, dismissive of the thoughts and emotions he had as a young man. He does remember how taken he was in secondary (i.e., high) school with Adrian, who had a serious affect and blunt, modernist ideas, such as pooh-poohing historians’ need to “ascribe responsibility” when it’s impossible (says Adrian) to know for certain why anything happens. But a bit later, when Tony mentions that Adrian committed suicide, his tone is weirdly casual. He seems to have no knowledge of or curiosity about why Adrian ended his life. Is he that unreflective? Or is there something more to the story?

In 2011, I blew through Barnes’s short book, which is structured like a mystery and written in a brisk and unadorned style. But the end left me so shattered that I immediately reread it, paying special attention to a few middle pages that go by fast but are loaded with significance. The plot is unsatisfying: Big, messy, convoluted things happen far from our narrator and aren’t easy to imagine. But The Sense of an Ending transcends its plot. Like (but more modestly than) Ian McEwan’s Atonement, it forces us to examine the ways we frame and even rewrite our own histories.

Before discussing The Sense of an Ending as a film, I have to acknowledge what Neil deGrasse Tyson said on NPR’s Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me when the host, Peter Sagal, asked if Tyson’s frequent scientific objections made him a pain to go to movies with. Tyson was having none of it. He said, “The most annoying people to bring to movies, I think we all agree, are those who read the book first. I don’t need to hear, ‘Oh, that character wasn’t developed right … Oh, they left out a …’ Shut up already.”

Them’s fighting words, and what makes them worse is that you’re nodding your head, aren’t you? You tell him, Neil! If a movie works on its own terms, that’s all that matters. I agree! Who cares if the novel Six Days of the Condor became the movie Three Days of the Condor? The Condor had enough to deal with in three days! The problem comes when you’re watching a film based on a book and you don’t even understand what it’s supposed to be about, let alone what attracted people to it in the first place. So you go to said book and say, “Ah. I see why they blew it.”

I see why they blew the movie of The Sense of an Ending. To start with, they softened the material. The director, Ritesh Batra, had a hit with The Lunchbox, in which two people mix up their lunchboxes and develop a deep bond based on their respective meals. His genial, humanistic tone was fine in that context, but here it’s too soothing. Nick Payne’s screenplay, meanwhile, is loaded with signposts. Payne doesn’t just tell the story. He pre-chews it. He has the loner Tony spend most of his time talking it all through with Harriet Walter as Tony’s ex-wife and Michelle Dockery as Tony’s very pregnant daughter. Broadbent is delightful — he’s always delightful — but his bright-blue eyes seem so childlike and open to the world that you can’t believe his Tony would have spent half a century buttoned-up. His Tony is human so fast that there’s no tension, no drama.

The only edge in The Sense of an Ending comes from Charlotte Rampling, who plays the older incarnation of the ex-girlfriend, Veronica. When Veronica and Tony meet in a cafe, ostensibly so he can retrieve the diary, Rampling fixes him with a look that would make Medusa shudder. What the hell did Tony do to Veronica? The flashbacks are admittedly tantalizing. The young Tony and Veronica are attracted to each other but can’t get in sync, and Billy Howle (who’s like a moodier Eddie Redmayne) and the magnetic Freya Mavor have a convincing awkwardness. Emily Mortimer makes Veronica’s mom a discomfortingly sexy imp: Her tousled hair suggests a woman who savors messiness too intensely. But for most of the film we’re stuck with Broadbent as he makes furtive overtures to his ex, sits in on a Lamaze session with his daughter, and mulls over his life on the way to becoming a better man.

Yes, the film’s trajectory is hopeful: Let’s be nicer to the people around us. Let’s be more present for our family. It’s a good message, and on that level — of a middlebrow well-made play — the movie works. But it’s world away from the mystery and irrevocable tragedy that Barnes evokes in his slim novel. The climactic revelation is very sad, but it doesn’t wound you.

There’s one touch I can’t stop thinking about: the fleeting appearance of a key character (or a dead ringer for that character) on a staircase while we’re puzzling out the connection between Veronica and an autistic man she accompanies on an outing. Was it my imagination or are the filmmakers really that ham-handed? You only spoon-feed an audience that way when you don’t trust them — or don’t trust your ability to connect with them on a deeper level. In this case, it’s probably both.

Review: The Sense of an Ending Softens the Novel’s Punch