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The Sense of an Ending

March 17, 2017
The Sense of an Ending

There’s something that sounds familiar about The Sense of an Ending. The score was composed by Max Richter, whose “On the Nature of Daylight” has become the wistful leitmotif for early 21st century movies that Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was for the late 20th century. It’s practically the main theme of HBO’s The Leftovers, and more recently it bookended last year’s Arrival.

Arrival was based on a short story by acclaimed science fiction author Ted Chiang. By a marvelous coincidence, another of his stories — “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” — offers a far more nuanced and thoughtful exploration of the central point of Julian Barnes’ novel than we see in Nick Payne and Ritesh Batra’s adaptation.

That point being that our lives are often less true than we suppose, and consist in large part of fictions that we make up to explain our feelings, rather than facts that justify them. Our self-image is composed less of the actions we take than of the stories we tell, not to crib too much from Sarah Polley, and those stories are often self-serving.

That’s certainly the case for Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a divorcé who can’t quite understand why exactly his ex-wife (Harriet Walter) left him, or why his daughter (Michelle Dockery) is surprised he’d fill in as her Lamaze partner when her mother is injured and can’t make it. He just putters around his home and his camera shop, with barely enough interest to greet the mail carrier delivering his parcels or the curious browsers who might be converted into sales with a little effort.

Until, that is, he feels he is owed something. He receives a letter from a woman he once knew, evidently as part of her will. She refers to “the enclosed”, with nothing else in the envelope. Her executor states that it was meant to be the diary of an old schoolmate of his, but her daughter, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), has refused to turn it over. This puts him in dogged pursuit of what he demands is rightfully his, even if he had never thought about it until this moment. And while he chases her down, he reminisces to his ex, whether she’s interested or not.

The flashbacks feature a young Tony (Billy Howle) meeting his high-school chum — and, evidently, diarist — Adrian (Joe Alwyn), and Veronica (Freya Mavor), his first serious girlfriend. We see Tony meeting Veronica’s mother, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), but just how his girlfriend’s mother got hold of his other friend’s diary remains maddeningly vague for the longest time.

Of course, this is only really a mystery to us, and to Tony’s ex-wife to the extent she functions as an audience surrogate. Tony knows full well how Adrian’s diary got to Sarah; he just won’t tell us because as long as he keeps stringing his audience along with his story, he has a cheap sense of power over them. It’s the mystery box all over again, repackaged for the senior crowd. But, as cheap a hook as it is, I must admit that it’s the reason this movie works at all. Without the frustration of wanting to know what happened, I’d have been completely bored.

Broadbent puts in a fine performance, though possibly coming off a bit too sympathetic. Rampling is strong, what little we see of her, and similar can be said of the rest of the cast. This is decidedly Broadbent’s film, as much as the poster crowds his face out, Tony crowds everyone else out of his own story until he can’t help but acknowledge his shortcomings. And while there’s some satisfaction in seeing a self-important old guy get put in his place, there’s little more to it than that.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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