The shadow of déjà vu hangs over Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winner, The Sense Of An Ending. Part of it is down to Charlotte Rampling’s name on the cast list and poster, harking back to Andrew Haigh’s much- praised 45 Years (2015). Part of it is down to something more recent – last week, in fact, because this is the second week running that a film for the so-called grey market opens in UK cinemas. Last week’s Going In Style left no doubt it was for those over 50, but The Sense Of An Ending isn’t specifically targeted at that, or any other, market.
Which is something of surprise. It’s about older people and reflections of the past, so there is plenty that will resonate with mature audiences. In this instance, the story is about Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), who’s in his 70s, retired, divorced and running a small classic camera business. His relationship with ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) is cordial and they’re both looking forward to their 30-something daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) giving birth to their grandchild. He’s happy enough with his solitary life, complacent even, until a letter arrives that resurrects events from his student days, things which he protected himself from and which he’s ashamed of. And it uncovers some unknown truths.
That letter reveals a bequest to him from the will left by the mother of his first girlfriend, who Margaret describes flippantly as “The Fruitcake.” And Veronica (her younger self played by Freya Mavor, with Charlotte Rampling as the present day version) is certainly something of an enigma. The young couple never consummate their relationship, even though she takes him home to meet the family. And the portrayal of her parents is an indicator of what’s to come. During Tony’s first visit, we hardly get a glimpse of David (James Wilby), the father’s, face: it’s always concealed. But we see plenty of the mother, Sara (Emily Mortimer) with her 60s hair, Bardot clothes and nervy behaviour. Tony and Veronica eventually break up, but what comes as a bolt from the blue is that she’s left him for his best friend, Alex (Joe Alwyn). He never saw it coming. The result is a letter he writes to the new couple, full of vitriol and containing what could be interpreted as a curse.
It’s not just the re-appearance of that letter that shakes Tony out of his self-imposed complacency. Other memories come to light, ones he’s buried so deep that he doesn’t regard them as part of his personal history any more. He’s convinced that Alex met Veronica because he and her brother were both at Cambridge. It was actually Tony who introduced them and the Cambridge connection has been created by another memory, a few lines of conversation between Tony and the brother. They’ve merged into one, erroneous recollection but one that he’s taken as the truth for years.
An intelligent film, but without the depth of 45 Years, and the occasional frustrating gap in the narrative, The Sense Of An Ending examines the changes that go with long standing relationships, how memories shift, alter and merge and how protecting yourself from being hurt is perhaps one of the most dangerous things you can do to yourself. Tony’s been doing it for years and the result is a grumpy git who can’t even be pleasant to his friendly postie. He turns out to be the barometer charting Tony’s change in attitude.
Jim Broadbent is as excellent as you would expect as Tony – a hard sell as a less than sympathetic central character – taking us inside the man’s world view with style and seemingly no effort. Walter and Rampling give the cast list even more pedigree and Emily Mortimer is especially telling in the pivotal role of Veronica’s mother. And, as a school master, Matthew Goode has a decidedly different role to his second film released this week, The Hatton Garden Job.
Best described as 45 Years Lite, The Sense Of An Ending may not have the subtlety of its predecessor, and there’s more than a few cracks in the narrative. But it does have a strong cast which manages to both paper over them and provide and absorbing distraction. And the most effective of them all is Broadbent.
The Sense Of An Ending is released in cinemas on Friday 14th April.