The Sense of an Ending (2017) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality and brief strong language
Running Time: 108 min.
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Charlotte Rampling, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, Joe Alwyn
Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenplay: Nick Payne (based on the novel by Julian Barnes)
Review published March 22, 2017
Jim Broadbent (Bridget Jones's Baby, The Legend of Tarzan) gets a rare starring role in a film, which might be reason enough to rejoice for those who've enjoyed his many wonderful supporting character turns, but, unfortunately, even his presence isn't enough to spark The Sense of an Ending to life. He plays London divorcee and retiree Tony Webster, who spends his days running a vintage camera shop, who ends up resurrecting old feelings when he receives word that, Sarah Ford (Mortimer, Hugo), the mother of a girl he was seeing in his days at college during the 1960s, has died and has left him a diary, currently in the possession of his ex-girlfriend, Veronica (Rampling, I Anna), who doesn't want to hand over the item.
The flashbacks are the main thrust of the film, framed by the present-time retelling of the story between Tony and his ex-wife with whom he is still on good terms, Margaret (Walter, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), who is mildly amused at seeing her husband go through the wringer of emotions that reliving the events causes, but also mildly annoyed that he never revealed any of these deep-rooted, emotional things while they were together as husband and wife. As Tony begins to find out more about what has happened to the friends he once had over forty years ago, the more he realizes how much he assumed about them at the time that has shaped his world view, which is now changing radically with each new piece of information that comes out.
A Sense of an Ending is made by Indian director Ritesh Batra (Masterchef, The Lunchbox), in his first English-language effort, from a Nick Payne (Nora) adaptation of a 2011 award-winning novel from Julian Barnes, laboring from the cinema-unfriendly narrative structure involving a sit-down conversation, followed by flashbacks of a story filled with details that take too long to get to the relevant portions. The problem isn't so much the direction and writing as much as it is an idea that doesn't seem to translate very well into a feature film, as the characters aren't particularly interesting to follow, and the nature of what these characters do or have done to one another is even less so. Only the theme on the human need to find closure in history, both political and personal, and of how we can't really know what caused an event unless documented in the moment, is something fresh, but even then, it's not really worth an hour and forty-plus minutes to explore to make its point, especially when the major reveals within the film will inspire more yawns than gasps.
Although this is a fine collection of actors, there are casting issues. The primary one is that it there is very little resemblance between the older versions of the characters, played by Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling (whose presence only reminds us of how much better 45 Years handled a similar plotline), with their younger representations, played by Billy Howle (Fulfilment) and Freye Mavor (The Lady in the Car with Glasses and a Gun), respectively. It's difficult to resolve that we're watching the natural extension of the characters when they look, act, and speak in manners entirely different between the decades, taking us out of the story to observe them separately, rather than as a seamless whole. There are also needless ones, including a subplot involving Tony's pregnant daughter (Dockery, Self/less) about to give birth, presumably to showcase a beginning as part of an ending in a film about beginnings and endings.
Unless you're someone captivated by Broadbent to the point where you will enjoy anything he is in, there's not much about The Sense of an Ending that I can recommend. Other than that, it's just a collection of people you won't care about talking about things that don't matter much, except to Tony, who is not remarkable enough to register an impression upon us one way or another. It's not bad, but it's boring and nearly weightless, making the act of watching The Sense of an Ending not make much sense in the end.
©2017 Vince Leo