Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is about as average as you can get. Now in late middle age, he’s semi-retired and runs a second-hand camera shop in London; is divorced, but maintains an amicable relationship with his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter); is an attentive father to his pregnant, single daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery); and lives very much in the present, without much regard for the past. He’s content, unfussy, and doesn’t indulge in self-reflection. However, all that changes when Tony receives a posthumous letter from Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer), the mother of his one-time girlfriend, Veronica, indicating that she has willed him the diary of a long-deceased friend, a college chum named Adrian whom Tony admired and emulated.
Why Sarah left Tony the diary and why she was in possession of it in the first place are two key mysteries Tony tries to unravel. Making his probe more difficult, however, is the fact that Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to hand over the journal and treats him with contempt when she reluctantly agrees to meet him. During their brief encounter, she gives Tony a letter he dashed off in a moment of anger and sent to her and Adrian when he learned they were in a relationship. Tony becomes obsessed with finding out what the diary contains and discovering why Veronica is still upset over a stinging but clearly impulsively written letter from over 40 years ago. Director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) and screenwriter Nick Payne, adapting Julian Barnes’ 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, employ flashbacks to flesh out the story, as Tony begins to recall and reevaluate past mistakes and grapple with the impact those careless errors have had on the lives of people who were once close and beloved.
Broadbent and his first-rate supporting cast are easily the best things about The Sense of an Ending. The Oscar-winning actor, always a pleasure to watch, makes Tony magnificently ordinary and ornery; he’s a character we can readily identify and sympathize with. The tender scenes between Tony and Margaret, and the chilly ones between Tony and Veronica are compelling and lift the story out of the mundane. Unfortunately, the superb Rampling is underused. In Barnes’ novel, Veronica is much more of a presence, as she and Tony meet several times, take a memorable, bumpy car ride together, and exchange emails that slowly ratchet up the suspense and give the story the edge it needs. In the movie, however, Veronica is reduced to scant screen time, which undercuts the tension. The novel proceeds to a heart-shattering conclusion, whereas the movie, with its jerky back-and-forth narrative, jumbles the story to such an extent that when its mysteries are eventually revealed they don’t seem to add up to very much.
The Sense of an Ending raises important questions about how we recall the past and, in many cases, try to paint ourselves in the best possible light regardless of how we behaved, and how we try to shift blame. These are issues worthy of a major motion picture. Unfortunately, Batra’s movie isn’t up to the task and is content to merely wade into these shadowy, murky areas when a deep dive is required. The result is a film that is dull when it should be devastating.