Film Review: A Sense of an Ending
A SENSE OF AN ENDING (2016) DIR. RITESH BATRA
By Belle McIntyre
This vaguely melancholy film, based on the Booker prize-winning novel by Julian Barnes, is about memory and how we store our past. The protagonist, a late middle-aged retiree named Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), seems to be leading a comfortable, reasonably uncomplicated life. He has accepted the reduction in the passion of youth as an inevitability of being on the downward slope of life’s curve. He has an affable relationship with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and his headstrong single daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery), who has decided to get pregnant without benefit of a partner. They are mutually supportive of one another, although the two women find him exasperatingly detached.
We begin to know something of his past through an interaction with a client in his small camera shop, which sells Leicas – a passion he developed during his long-ago relationship with his first love, Veronica, while he was at Oxford. When he receives a letter from a solicitor informing him that he has been left a bequest from Veronica’s recently deceased mother Sarah, his past life comes roaring back into his current one with a vengeance.
Episodes from Tony’s past at Oxford are revealed in vivid flashbacks of the young Tony (Billy Howle), a callow, exuberant fellow who finds his first love in Veronica (Freya Mavor), a nubile, elusive blond. Their relationship is almost brotherly, except that they experiment with sex, albeit in a tentative, awkward way. Tony spends a weekend with her family in the country, where he encounters her mother (Emily Mortimer), a very alluring Mrs. Robinson-wannabe. But nothing comes of it. In fact, nothing comes of any of it, including his relationship with Veronica, which seems to have just fizzled out.
The more dramatic part of Tony’s past involves one of his best male friends, the charismatic and brilliant Adrien Finn (Joe Alwyn), a student of philosophy who goes on to pursue his education at Cambridge. And, as it turns out, he also pursues Veronica, with whom he develops a full-bodied romantic relationship. Tony learns of this through a letter from Adrien, who vainly attempts to reveal it in a way that will not damage their relationship. Tony responds with uncharacteristic intensity, writing a severely harsh letter excoriating and ex-communicating his former friends. Tony has at last seemingly closed the book on that chapter of his life, storing the details in neat compartments. However, there is one more reckoning to come – when he learns that Adrien has committed suicide.
Back in the present day, the long-locked trunk of compartments is opened when Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) reluctantly agrees to meet Tony to discuss the bequest from Sarah. I will not reveal the details of what he unearths. But in the process of discovery, Tony acquires a new sense of purpose, a transformation that his wife and daughter find extremely annoying and unsettling. He is diligent and persistent in his pursuit of the truth, and much is not what it appeared to be. In examining the unexamined parts of his past, Tony finds himself available for the present. All’s well that ends well. It is a sweet story with excellent performances. A bit on the slow side, but altogether satisfying.