Movie Review: The Sense of an Ending
In the film version of the ambiguous Julian Barnes novel, Jim Broadbent shines as an older man whose quiet life is interrupted by a letter that makes him re-evaluate the past
The Sense of an Ending
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walker
Directed by: Ritesh Bitra
Running time: 108 minutes
By Jay Stone
“We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe. We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly. What we called realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.”
This is Tony Webster, the hero, if you want to use such a big word, of Julian Barnes’ novel The Sense of An Ending. It’s the story of an older man looking back on his life, and finding that he is the unreliable narrator of his own small, half-forgotten dramas. He begins as a foolish young man who doesn’t understand love and ends as a foolish old man whose epiphany is that he still doesn’t understand love.
As a movie, The Sense of an Ending lacks the ambiguous turns and poignant discoveries that Barnes wove into the book — which won the Booker prize — but it holds its own delights. Film isn’t very good at ambiguous turns and so on, but it’s very good at faces, glances, silences, significant looks, and quietude. There is something going on here beyond what we see, a feeling that captures the essence of Barnes.
An authentically grumpy Jim Broadbent plays Tony, an aging, lonely and surprisingly dashing man who owns a camera store that specializes in Leicas —Tony admires the exquisite workmanship of the cameras with same outsider’s appreciation that he brings to his own life —in London. His world is interrupted by a surprising letter from Susie, the mother of Tony’s university girlfriend Veronica. She says she has attached something that may interest him, but the letter — like Tony himself, alas — has no attachment.
This leads him to recall his youth, much of it narrated over various lunches and cups of coffee with Margaret (Harriet Walker, in a performance as quietly exquisite as a Leica), his ex-wife and a woman who maintains a residual affection for him. We’re never told of Tony’s failings as a husband, but we can see them in the way he stumbles toward understanding what his life has meant. For one thing, it turns out he has never before shared his tale of young love won and lost, a bit of news that tells us volumes about his marriage.
Director Ritesh Bitra (The Lunchbox) takes us back in time where young Tony (Billy Howle), one of those tousle-haired students of the 1960s, falls in love with Veronica (Freya Mavor), one of those flirtatious, ironic woman of the time (or at least in movies about the time). Tony never sleeps with Veronica — they kiss passionately, but fully clothed — which plays as a kind of failure of nerve, part of Tony’s thoughtless, disconnected passage through his own life.
The movie gives you a feeling of Tony’s hesitations. There is a mysterious sequence when he visits Veronica’s country house for the weekend and meets her eccentric family at a dinner party that recalls the fraught conversation that Woody Allen had with Annie Hall’s Waspy clan. “I’m partial to a little bit of rare meat myself,” says her brother Jack (Edward Holcroft) before dinner, a sort of warning that plays out when her mother Susie (Emily Mortimer), discussing poetry, confesses, “I’m partial to a little Larkin myself,” which is approximately the same thing.
Susie, who gives Tony a strange, sideways wave as he leaves the house, is part of the hidden subtext of The Sense of an Ending, along with Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), a university friend whose theory that history’s secrets are unreadable makes him a class leader even as he is set apart from the others.
In act 2 of the movie — an exceedingly dense film for all its quotidian concerns — Tony meets the older Veronica (Charlotte Rampling, playing, as she frequently does, a mistress of haughty remove) and learns the secrets of his own life, solutions that are as puzzling as they were in the book. Tony, who has, in some way, been hiding behind one of his beloved Leicas for most of his life, eventually learns to step in front of the lens and, like David Copperfield, take over the leading role in his own story. He (and us) may not know exactly what happened, but at least we learn that something did.
THE EX-PRESS, March 20, 2017
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