R/eview: The Sense of an Ending

By Katy Shick || viewed at a/perture cinema

In the opening scenes of The Sense of an Ending, Tony Webster, played by Jim Broadbent, an aging owner of a vintage camera shop, reflects that emotions felt in one’s youth promise to propel one into a different, better life while emotions experienced in later life only serve to validate one’s choices. As Tony goes about his morning—coffee at home alone, a small shop with no customers, lunch in the park alone—he reveals that the life he is attempting to justify is actually a fairly lonely existence. Yet, over the course of his day he speaks pleasantly to his ex-wife and grown daughter on the phone, so clearly his life was not always so sad. So, what happened? The answer to this question and the mystery surrounding a key period in Tony’s youth serve as the heart of the narrative, which is based on the novel by Julian Barnes. What the viewer discovers is that Tony’s path to becoming a “curmudgeon” wasn’t straight, but a complicated journey guided by misperception and self-delusion.

When Tony arrives at his camera shop at the beginning of the story, he begins sorting through the mail. Distracted first by a chatty customer and then by his daughter’s request to accompany her to her Lamaze class, Tony finally returns to the letter to discover that he has inherited a diary from the mother of Veronica Ford, an old girlfriend from college. When he goes to her lawyer’s office, he is told that Veronica has the diary and has refused to give it back. His curiosity piqued and his ego ruffled, he becomes insistent that the diary is his property and requests a meeting with Veronica. She reluctantly meets him for breakfast, but is cold and reserved, finally handing him a sealed letter and leaving him when he demands the diary’s return. What he discovers in the letter challenges his interpretation of their break up as well as his own perception of himself as a good person. As he digs deeper into his relationship with Veronica, her family, and a high school classmate, he discovers that much of what he believes to be true, and much of the hurt he has held onto for the majority of his life is, in fact, a tragic misconception.

The majority of the story switches between Tony’s present life and flashbacks to his relationship with Veronica in college during the late 1960s. In the present day, Tony has a pleasant but far from warm relationship with his ex-wife, Margaret, played by Harriet Walter as well as his daughter, Susie, played by Michelle Dockery. When he meets with Margaret at a café, she patiently listens to his complaints like a woman who has many years’ experience hearing his justifications. They do not discuss their divorce. Although they seem amicable, her weariness and the fact that he operates a Leica camera shop, the very brand of camera to which Veronica was partial, hint at the reason. Likewise, his relationship with Susie seems pleasant, if cool. He is obviously her second choice for a Lamaze partner, and she seems surprised when he expresses a desire to share with her some of the details of his youth. With both women, Tony seems to be a distant, difficult to love man caught up in himself.

As a young man, Tony seems much more open and innocent. He meets Veronica at a party, and she talks to him about her camera. When he spends a weekend with her family, Tony is frustrated by Veronica’s aloofness and confused by her mixed signals. He is charmed, however, by her family, especially her mother, played by Emily Mortimer, who seems warm and open, an impression that fuels his later obsession with the diary she leaves to him. Back at school he is a happy young man amid his classmates. He admires a fellow classmate’s bold interpretation of history, and he and his friends talk excitedly about their future pursuits.

This portrait of a young man, interested in becoming a poet, who is jovial and open, is destroyed by the betrayal of one of his friends, Adrian, who begins dating Veronica after Tony and she have broken up. In a fit of wounded passion, he writes a nasty letter to Adrian, and it is this letter that Veronica hands to him forty years later. For the majority of his life, he has held a belief in the betrayal of his friend and former lover that fuels his decline into a sad and lonely old man. His sense of wrong is so great that he manages to shape the events around that discovery to suit his own purposes. It is only when he learns the whole truth that he can begin to step back and objectively look at his behavior. In doing so, he begins to find his “sense of an ending” to the affair and begins to look again at the real life he currently leads that promises true happiness with his daughter and new baby.

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The Sense of an Ending becomes one of those films that blossoms at the end and continues to grow in the mind on the way home. A small story of a man searching for answers from a very brief point in his past, it unfolds slowly (maybe a little too slowly for a Friday evening showing after a long work week). Deliberate to keep Tony’s secret and focus on older Tony’s calcified view of his life, screenwriter Nick Payne maintains this point of view through the revealing of his past, which holds the viewer’s sympathy for Tony. Director Ritesh Batra does a fine job juxtaposing scenes from the present with the revelation of Tony’s secret from the past. At times the film gives too much screen time to the older Tony when the viewer might be better satisfied with a more complete portrait of young Tony, Veronica, Adrian, and Veronica’s mother, but the time with older Tony is not wasted.

The film also is supported by a fine cast, most notably Jim Broadbent as the older Tony and Charlotte Rampling as the older Veronica. Broadbent lends a humanity to Tony’s curmudgeon that keeps him from falling into a two dimensional caricature of a bitter old man. Broadbent’s Tony has hardened over the years and does seem to suffer from a lack of objectivity, but one gets the impression that a good father is waiting just under the surface. Rampling’s Veronica practically steals every scene she appears in. Bitter and cold but justified, she has no patience with Tony and proves to be the one point of his past that he has no control over. Many fine actors play small, almost bit parts. Emily Mortimer has very little screen time, but she creates an enigmatic character hard to understand even at the end when we learn more about her. Matthew Goode is a high school teacher, and James Wilby is Veronica’s father. Perhaps the most delightful character with only a brief part is the chatty would be shopper at Tony’s camera store played by Oliver Maltman, most notable for his portrayal as the son in Another Year.

Many critics have argued that the film softens too much of the pain of Tony’s discovery that the prize winning novel brings with such force. Often films do not capture what a particular novel conveyed so well. At the same time, however, many films tell stories of their own, alongside or beyond a novel. The viewer who comes to this film without having read the novel won’t know the difference and will see Tony’s softness as another dimension of his character, not simply a departure from the novel. The viewer who has read the novel will perhaps see the same thing. Either way The Sense of an Ending will ask him or her to consider how our perception of what is true can be shaped by our own expectations, and they will experience the story of a good man who made a terrible mistake—a request that is never a waste of time.