Were I a better movie critic, I would remember Joseph Losey’s 1971 version of The Go-Between more clearly. And were I a more conscientious critic, I would go watch it again before mentioning it in this review. Alas, I am neither, so I’ll just have to apologize in advance for my faulty memories.
But since the movie I actually am reviewing, Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending, is all about the way our memories play tricks on us, it seems somehow poetic, don’t you agree? I prefer that to the other explanation – that I am just lazy.
Actually, Batra’s movie recalls The Go-Between for several reasons. Perhaps most obviously, it stars Jim Broadbent, the actor who also happened to star in a television version of the L.P. Hartley novel a few years ago. In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Broadbent plays an elderly man looking back on an incident from his youth which would have profound implications for several people, himself included. His memories are triggered by a diary he had written way back when.
In The Sense of an Ending, Broadbent again stars, this time as an elderly man who is forced to reevaluate something from his youth after being presented with a letter he had written. His actions would have profound impact on several people, himself included. See the parallel?
But that is not the most germane similarity. The Sense of an Ending, like The Go-Between before it, mostly fails because it focuses its attention on the least interesting character in its narrative.
Broadbent’s Tony Webster is a man who has turned down the volume on his life until it is barely a hum. He is content in his isolation, though any time he spends with ex-wife Margaret or pregnant daughter Susie does hint at his longing for greater connection. But by and large, he is as stultified as the old cameras he sells in his postage stamp-sized shop. (Or doesn’t sell – he really seems to just like to have a place to go every day.)
Tony had a great love in the past, a mysterious woman named Veronica who came from an equally mysterious family. Tony’s youthful visit to that family forms one of the key memories he will confront as his story unfolds. Tony also had a best friend named Adrian, an intellectual idealist who challenged those around him to see their lives more honestly. When the older Tony receives an inheritance from Veronica’s recently deceased mother, which includes a diary, it causes him to revisit these characters and examine a mystery from their time together.
Julian Barnes’ novel on which the movie was based, has a fascinating question at its core. Tony voices it late in the film. How often do we rewrite our own life stories and how often do we edit, embellish, or outright lie to ourselves? But Barnes novel fell down when it came to its characters. Specifically, it never adequately figured out the mysterious Veronica, who behaves in a coldly vindictive manner which seems more grounded in the need for Tony to learn a lesson than in any true characterization.
The film version pulls a coup by casting Charlotte Rampling to play to older Veronica, whose interactions with Broadbent’s Tony cut to the emotional core of the story. Rampling is talented enough make an enigmatic character seem believable whether it is in the text or not. But this also points directly at the problem I alluded to earlier. Veronica, either Rampling’s version or Freya Mavor’s younger incarnation, isn’t on screen enough. Neither is Joe Alwyn’s Adrian Finn. And especially absent is Emily Mortimer’s Margaret Webster, arguably the most interesting character in the narrative. They all exist as foils for Tony, so that he might learn what is of genuine value in his life.
This is the same problem writers always have when trying to tell a story which is set in the present but is so heavily invested in the past. At what point do we simply want to jettison the present and tell the past story straight?
Batra does a nice job with problematic material. He has a deft touch getting in and out of his flashbacks, occasionally inserting the older Broadbent in place of Billy Howle, who plays Tony as a young man.
But the real saving grace in The Sense of an Ending is Broadbent. He is so charming, so honest, so involving, that he makes it possible to watch Tony for a couple of hours and not grow bored. He, in a sense, is solving another traditional dramatic problem. How do you play boring without being boring? Broadbent pulls that off. If only the movie didn’t leave us feeling that there was a lot more to explore that may have been even more illuminating.