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When you don’t have the right Sense of an Ending

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In homage to Julian Barnes’s captivating novelThe Sense of an Ending“, I will write this piece in two parts. Part One is spoiler-free, Part Two is not.

Part One

Jim Broadbent is a classy guy. His hang-dog expression and glassy-eyed glances make me bleed sympathy. He deserves more leading roles and yet he is almost-too-perfectly cast in The Sense of an Ending. The book is an all-time favourite and worthy of a translation to film. The Sense of an Ending is, at face value, a mystery concerning how the past informs the future. Broadbent plays camera-shop owner Tony. When a letter arrives out of the blue bequeathing him a diary, Tony must recount events from his University days to ascertain whose diary it is and why they want Tony to have it.

Director Ritesh Batra weaves a light-hearted parable about selective memory, and the extended flashbacks of young Tony (played by Billy Howle) and girlfriend Veronica (Freya Mavor) nicely round out the story. I especially liked Harriet Walter’s work as Tony’s ex-wife Margaret, and hope that she receives credit as the film goes on general release. Walters is not as well-known internationally as  Charlotte Rampling (who plays the older Veronica), but is on screen for far longer.

A gentle narrative about a very English affectation, I enjoyed The Sense of an Ending on this level. But…it could have said more about how we contain multitudes, about human self-delusion and the games that we play.

Part Two

And so we reach the SPOILER SECTION. There will be plenty of viewers of The Sense of an Ending who have not read the book, and if I could wheel each of them out of the cinema and directly into the nearest bookshop, I would. But I only have the power to say that the filmmakers failed.

The adaptation does not do justice to the reason why this book won the Booker Prize: Julian Barnes introduces readers to a Tony who is multi-layered: both brilliant and an extremely unreliable narrator. Not only is Tony unreliable in recapping of his own life, but he manages to fool himself, keeping himself out of emotional harm’s way by refusing to acknowledge obvious events and relationships. By the end of the book, we are made to feel that we know more about Tony than he does himself, Barnes having rendered such a tangible character on the page.

The film hints at these layers, conjuring repeated sleights of hand (sometimes literally, with cuts to Veronica’s mother Sarah (Emily Mortimer) repetitively waving her hand at young Tony, a nervous tick with no explanation offered). By the movie’s resolution, most viewers would have missed certain facts the filmmakers were (probably) trying to communicate. Especially, that Tony slept with Sarah in his University days (her wave meaning ‘don’t tell anyone what we did‘) and that the child that he follows in the present day, who he first believes to be Veronica’s son and then her brother, may be his own son.

I am convinced that screenwriter Nick Payne wanted viewers to consider these subtleties, after all, he managed to simplify Quantum Theory in his excellent play Constellations, but this is all lost in translationI lay the blame squarely at Batra’s door. His direction has not done justice to the book, and not even to the essence of the title! Tony should be a character who has self-edited his history to such a degree that he doesn’t know what the truth looks like…but the viewer does.

This is a waste of a fascinating conceit. In a world where Donald Trump is single-handedly trying to rewrite natural laws, we should consider how damaging the decisions of a self-deluded man can be. Instead, The Sense of an Ending demands that we are satisfied that Tony – by virtue of lapses of truth in amongst his dirty lying memory – is emotionally grown because he is nice to his ex-wife and pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) for all of five minutes. I could scream.

What could have been a cerebral think-piece, has been reduced to a Netflix caption that reads: “If you like privileged movies about men achieving the bare minimum of humility then you’ll love this.” For the true sense of an ending, skip the film and enjoy the complexity of Barnes’s wonderful prose.

I’m in the process of formulating a new podcast on film for liveforfilm.com, looking at improving representation at the movies. Here’s a snapshot where Nick and I debate The Sense of an Ending straight after our first watch:

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