Retired and divorced, Tony (Jim Broadbent) potters around his camera shop while helping his daughter (Michelle Dockery) prepare for her first baby. Then a surprising legacy in the will of an old friend sends him on a quest that stirs up distant memories.
Booker Prize winners have long been a handy starting point for moviemakers. The Remains Of The Day, Life Of Pi and Schindler’s Ark accrued 31 Oscar nominations between them in their big-screen incarnations. On the smaller screen, Wolf Hall added a Golden Globe and two BAFTAs to that haul. Julian Barnes’ 2011 novella The Sense Of An Ending, a smaller parable about the way memories blur and mislead with age, hasn’t translated quite as powerfully to the screen, but is certainly no disgrace. Split across two timelines, it’s a thoughtful adaptation that’s never quite the conventional character study it first appears.
A thoughtful adaptation that’s never quite the conventional character study it first appears.
At the heart of Ritesh Batra’s (The Lunchbox) film is Jim Broadbent’s Londoner, Tony Webster — a man growing older and, initially at least, short of purpose. Owlish and cranky, he shuffles through a life of semi-activity, puzzling out the mysteries of social media (“Do people really communicate this way?” he grumbles of Facebook) and airily dismissing potential customers in his camera shop. His pregnant daughter, played with wry exasperation by Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery, and his loyal ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter), seem to be all that’s keeping him from a hermit-like existence, until he’s suddenly bequeathed the diary of an old school friend.
Flashing back to the young Tony’s (Billy Howle) Another Country-ish schooldays, we learn of his puppyish admiration for that friend, Camus-quoting intellectual Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), as well as his crush on the distant but alluring Veronica (Freya Mavor). The ties between the three are tangled. Tony, it turns out, discovering they’d cheated on him, mailed a venomous letter with far-reaching consequences. Partly from long-dormant guilt, partly to see if his memories tally with the events, and partly for something to do, the grown-up Tony hunts down the diary, now in the possession of (the still elusive) Veronica. Revisiting the themes of the superior 45 Years, Charlotte Rampling brings her icy reserve to bear in their eventual encounter. Like a ghost roused irately from its slumbers, she drifts imperiously through the film in little more than a cameo role.
It takes all of Broadbent’s outsized charm to dredge any likeability from a man of almost Olympian levels of self-absorption. To say that Barnes has created a polarising protagonist is an understatement. On the page (and recounted entirely from Tony’s own perspective), his dogged quest is tempered by the nostalgic glow of autumnal reflection; on screen, he just seems like a bit of a tit. He’s growing old, but still growing up.
Screenwriter Nick Payne — an award-winner in his own right for his play Constellations — has added a father-daughter subplot, and it brings much-needed amiability. A lovely scene at an NCT class sees Tony throw himself into the role of fish out of water as his daughter’s birthing partner. Meanwhile, Batra uses a restaurant date for Tony and Margaret to cut cleverly between the timelines. As Tony tells his story, the picture of a youth clouded with secrets and tragedy slowly sharpens.
It’s here that the film is most effective. There are even echoes of Atonement and Joseph Losey’s ’70s classic The Go-Between in the destructive power of the written word and the way memories can curl and distort like an old photo left in the light. If only its protagonist had been as easy to root for.
A handsome and well-acted rumination on memory, boyhood and ageing that sees Ritesh Batra deliver a solid rather than inspired interpretation of Julian Barnes’ prize winner.