I was curious to see what director Ritesh Batra was going to do as a follow-up to his 2013 film The Lunchbox, his feature film debut that garnered much critical acclaim, for good reason. Batra’s film was a love-letter to Mumbai in some ways – to its dabbawalas in particular -- and Batra established himself as a filmmaker who reflected on life’s small moments, its memories, and on its human connections. This, it would seem, made him almost a natural to take on the film adaptation of the Booker Prize winning novel The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.
The book tells us the story of the late-middle-aged Tony Webster, retired (mostly), living alone after the peaceable divorce from his wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter) – indeed, the two remain friends, often dine together, and Tony continues to use Margaret as a sounding board.
Webster receives a solicitor’s letter informing him that he has inherited some money and a diary from the mother of his first girlfriend, Veronica – an event that will see him trying to make sense of events that happened so very long ago.
The film, like the book, explores the themes of time and memory – especially the persistence of memory, how some things we forget, some things we remember despite the passing years, and how some events, forgotten and so small in the span of a lifetime, nevertheless manage to have ripples that spread outwards and across time, in totally unexpected ways. Time is slippery, and elastic. Memories persist.
And yet, do they? The Sense of an Ending explores the idea that memory, and history in a much broader sense, is also a slippery thing. Who tells a story? Who is remembered? How are they remembered? And when it comes to events, how do we ascribe responsibility and blame?
Batra and scriptwriter Nick Payne make changes to the novel, in ways that tighten the story, and, at least for me, give it a more satisfying ending. But the essentials of the novel are all here. One of the many things that made Julian Barnes’ novel so intriguing was the fact that Tony is an unsympathetic protagonist – he’s curmudgeonly, he’s rigid, and he’s baffled by what others in his life see clearly – from his ex-wife, to his daughter, to his ex-girlfriend. Tony, the novel tells us, is “a man who found comfort in his own doggedness.”
In fact, the film allows us to see how interesting are the women who surround Tony: Veronica and her mother; his ex-wife Margaret, by turns both curious and immensely frustrated by Tony; and his daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery), who is altogether quite aware of her father’s curmudgeonly nature. In fact, through his ex-wife and daughter we can see that Tony, imperfect as he is, and with a profound misunderstanding of his past the part he played in the lives of others, is still someone worth knowing.
The performances are wonderful. Veronica of the novel is, as she is described, particularly cold; Charlotte Rampling manages to infuse her icy demeanour with more depth – the film’s Veronica has moments of warmth (especially in her interactions with Adrian Jr.) to balance the hurt that lies just below her surface, and her own sense of persistence despite the events (as we discover them) of her life. Jim Broadbent gives us Tony the curmudgeon, but manages to make him likeable – the film allows us to understand how Margaret could remain friends with him, despite their divorce, despite Tony’s personality flaws.
I will confess: I loved The Sense of an Ending – the book – and I wasn’t sure its first-person-unreliable narrator who manages to come to some sense of self-reflection despite everything would translate well to the screen. The film, if anything, manages to make me appreciate the novel even more – how meticulously it is crafted, how its final revelations hit both Tony, and us, like that proverbial ton of bricks. Julian Barnes left Tony with responsibility and unrest; Batra gives him – and us -- hope.
The Sense of an Ending opens on March 10 in NY and LA and then opens on March 17 in most other major markets.