'Sense of an Ending' explores one man's pain in discovering buried secrets and a lost love
March 17, 2017 12:00 AM
In "The Sense of an Ending," Jim Broadbent leads a reclusive and quiet existence until long buried secrets from his past force him to face the flawed recollections of his younger self, the truth about his first love, Charlotte Rampling, and the devastating consequences of decisions made a lifetime ago.
By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Having assigned them to read up on Henry VIII, the professor asks which of his students might like to offer a characterization of that monarch’s reign. When nobody volunteers, he picks a victim. There’s a long, painful pause before the boy replies:
“There was unrest, sir.”
After the snickering dies down, he is asked to elaborate. Another long pause:
“I’d say there was great unrest, sir.”
More snickering — until the new boy, Adrian, dazzles the others with some much deeper thoughts.
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter.
Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality and brief strong language.
Most dazzled is Tony, our narrator: “We imagined ourselves as being in a holding tank, waiting to be released into our lives,” he reflects half a century later. “How were we to know that our lives had already begun, and that our release would only be into a larger holding tank and then, in time, a larger one ....”
Three names should suffice to tell you that “The Sense of an Ending” is a tale worth telling and seeing: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Julian Barnes.
Mr. Broadbent plays Tony, long retired (from what? we never quite know) and long divorced but newly haunted by the memory of Veronica (Ms. Rampling), his first great love. A lawyer has just informed him that he has inherited a diary from her late mother. It presumably contains the answer to a nagging, deeply upsetting mystery.
Mr. Barnes is the author of one of the 10 best books of the 20th century, “A History of the World in 10½ Chapters.” (Never heard of it? Run right out and get it! Among other monumental insights, it contains one of very few extant firsthand accounts of a passenger on Noah’s Ark.)
“The Sense of an Ending,” by contrast, is considerably less monumental — a slim 163-page novel with a sense of suicide and of a painful paternity issue, superseded by two even more painful maternity issues. What exactly is in that diary — an ending?
This is film gris rather than noir. Long-in-the-tooth Tony is no natural Sam Spade. He does all the requisite detective stuff — ruminating, interviewing, following — but does it all rather badly, with brilliant deductions that may not be so brilliant as he thinks.
Director Ritesh Batra previously made “The Lunchbox” (2013), a wonderfully bittersweet dramedy set in Mumbai. Here, his warm, dark, embracing sepia interiors of Tony’s college days — everything so full of sensual potential — are in perfect contrast to his glaring daylight exteriors of the present: the juxtaposition of Tony shaving for Veronica — then and now. His use of the 1964 rock anthem “Time Is on My Side” (the Irma Thomas, not the Rolling Stones version) is terrific. So is his rendering of Tony’s first encounter with sexy Veronica and subsequent visit to her manse, where everyone — including her equally sexy mother (Emily Mortimer) — recites poetry at the dinner table.
You can’t fail to enjoy Tony’s effort to sit on the big pillows at his uber-pregnant daughter’s Lamaze class. Or the hilarious reunion with his old-fart pals — less techno-resistant than he — introducing him to the wonders of trolling for somebody online.
The acting is exquisitely subtle, above all from Mr. Broadbent — forever nervously apologetic.
“I’m not an entirely redundant member of this family yet,” he sniffs to his eye-rolling ex-wife (Harriet Walter). “I didn’t say you were,” she replies.
All the women in his life are frankly TIRED of him, trying to shorten or terminate their conversations. But Ms. Rampling’s cold stare is most terrifying — as steely as when she was a girl.
Billy Howle is excellent as the young Tony, whose one rash act — a vengeful letter — alters everyone’s fate.
“The Sense of an Ending” is — not coincidentally — also the title of an important work of literary fiction theory by Frank Kermode. Mr. Barnes’ use of it (like Nick Payne’s screen adaptation) is polished and restrained to a fault. The resolution of the core mystery may or may not ultimately satisfy you as much as it wants to.
But it’s an intriguing meditation on the slippery slope of memory and regret: the crucial difference between your life and the story of your life, however it chooses to unfold.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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