Man Booker Prize winning British author Julian Barnes’ 2011 novel The Sense of An Ending makes it’s clandestine big screen debut in this quiet and talky English-language film debut from Indian director Ritesh Batra. The story of retired divorcee Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) who finds his decades old past is catching up with him after receiving a letter which triggers nostalgia over a love triangle that split apart his best friendship, it’s an ensemble low key drama about the ways we can reshape our memories of the past over extended periods of time and how our actions can have lifelong consequences on our friends and loved ones. Think of Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt with a mere fraction of that film’s comic timing and dramatic power.
Well-meaning with noble intentions, unfortunately the story itself is fairly light and average Hallmark Television poetic fluff aimed mostly at senior viewers and the film is populated by overqualified actors including but not limited to Charlotte Rampling, Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode (fresh off of Downton Abbey) who can’t seem to tell if they’re starring in a Stephen Daldry film. Not since The Hours has a literary adaptation been so in love with it's own lyrical pontificating about the meaning of life and so on. Thankfully however, Ritesh Batra keeps the proceedings just on this side of the tracks and prevents things from veering too far into lofty art-house pretension.
It goes without saying performances from the gifted cast are solid with emphasis on subtlety and nuance. My personal favorite exchanges come not from Rampling and Broadbent but flashbacks to Broadbent’s youth where Rampling’s mother played by Emily Mortimer exudes unspoken longings for him, implied without being declared outright. Broadbent gives Tony Webster quiet unrest with much of his emotional turmoil expressed facially rather than spoken. Charlotte Rampling, the last of a dying breed of great actresses ala Isabelle Huppert, is splendid and the real reason to seek out The Sense of An Ending, providing a brilliantly subtle performance which conveys a wide range of emotion with only the slightest smile and blink of an eye.
Technically speaking The Sense of an Ending is solid with ornate widescreen cinematography by Christopher Ross, careful attention paid to detail by production designer Jacqueline Abrahams and an ethereal score by Testament of Youth composer Max Richter. Still, for all the pitch perfect ingredients and performances I still felt underwhelmed in the end and also feel each of the actors have given better performances elsewhere. Fans of the small town drama concerning middle aged characters reliving their youth will come away satisfied if not a little disengaged. For myself, it tends to meander if not drag it’s feet at times. There have and will be again great films about midlife crises stemming from our versions of the past, but this one is a bit too content to lay there without making any genuinely new emotional discoveries. Broadbent and Rampling are always great when they’re in a film worthy of their talents and our time.
- Andrew Kotwicki