If there’s one thing that distinguishes British film adaptations of literary works from their American equivalents, it would be ambiguity. Our friends from across the water crave clear-cut, well-defined narrative plots; we’re more comfortable with open-ended resolutions.
The Sense of an Ending, adapted from Julian Barnes’s stylish Man Booker Prize-winning novel, is a case in point. It is understated, beautifully acted, with upmarket characters and a story that touches on unnerving themes but never descends to sensationalism. Terribly British, one might say; but when the result is this elegant, it feels like a compliment.
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Jim Broadbent plays Tony, a retired divorced man who lives alone in a small, studiously well-kept London townhouse. Amiable and slightly dull, he’s a creature of habit, peering owlishly at the world from behind large round spectacles. Given to weak jokes and outbreaks of grumpiness, he has shut out many aspects of modern life – including social media. Still, his single life seems pleasant enough; he’s friendly with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery), who is about to become a single mother. It feels like an unruffled existence.
But then Tony hears he has been left something in the will of a woman who was the mother of Veronica, his first girlfriend: it’s a diary of his closest school friend Adrian, who committed suicide when they were at university, and who was also smitten with Veronica. This episode in Tony’s life is news to Margaret, who is astounded – and far from happy -- when Tony tells her about it.
Flashbacks to the 1960s (in which Tony is played by the engaging Billy Hoyle) flesh out some, but not all of these details. Emily Mortimer is a delightful and significant presence as Veronica’s mother. Back in the present, Veronica herself sweeps back into Tony’s life, played bracingly and with a sardonic edge by Charlotte Rampling. And what Tony now learns – about himself and his past – comes as a shock to him and to his idea of himself.
It’s a delicate story, skilfully told, and subtly directed by Ritesh Batra (who made the delightful Mumbai film The Lunchbox). The ironies in the story are gentle; Tony’s big glasses are an ironic nod to the lack of clarity with which he has viewed his life.
The performances are uniformly excellent; we already know Broadbent can carry a film with style and grace, though here he is almost overshadowed by the magnificent Harriet Walter as Margaret. The Sense of an Ending, despite dealing with some juicy themes in Tony’s past, never settles for a vulgar ‘reveal’; instead it maintains an almost serene air all the way to the finish. British, then, to its very core.
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