Movie Review: The Sense of an Ending - film adaptation of bestseller lacks punch

Roadshow NZ/YouTube

The Sense of an Ending opens in New Zealand cinemas on May 18.

The Sense of an Ending (M)
108 mins

★★★½

This bestselling novel by Julian Barnes has been attentively transposed to the big screen by Ritesh Batra, whose debut feature, The Lunchbox, garnered rave reviews and won awards across the globe. That he was entrusted with visualising a Man Booker Prizewinner on only his second directorial outing is a great tribute, and Batra does many things well, although sadly one is left without the punch promised by the story's set-up.

Retired divorcee Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) lives a self-contained life, still inextricably linked to his lawyerly ex-wife and pregnant daughter (Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery). One day, his somewhat curmudgeonly existence is upheaved by the unexpected bequest of the diary of a former school friend, which prompts him to seek out the ex-girlfriend at the centre of the mystery. The fact she doesn't want to be contacted only strengthens his resolve – but the ensuing realisations are more than he bargained for. 

The Sense of an Ending.

The Sense of an Ending.

The source novel divides its linear narrative into two parts, the second twice as long as the first. The film doesn't follow this structure, instead jumping back in time to illustrate recollections as Tony unburdens himself in conversation with his ex-wife (an excellent Harriet Walter). Interestingly, however, the movie's flashbacks give the impression of doubling in length with each – initially we get the merest slither of a tantalising frame of Tony's past, then the next lingers longer, slowly eking out the revelations.

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At first this works well to engage and keep the audience guessing. Young Tony is played by relative newcomer Billy Howle, cut from Eddie Redmayne's cloth and soon to be seen in On Chesil Beach. His schoolboy days tackle traditional insecurities around love and sex, and convincingly establish how older Tony has turned into the failed husband we see today. Young Tony's excruciating weekend as his girlfriend's family home delivers lots of supporting actor fun from Emily Mortimer and impresses with its dedicated production design and delightful period costuming.

Unfortunately, despite beautiful photography (the film is a wonderful audition tape for London as somewhere you'd want to live. Spoiler alert: you couldn't afford any of the characters' houses) and roles for everyone from Matthew Goode to a typically dour Charlotte Rampling, the story's pacing and focus feels a bit muddied. An important character in the book is insufficiently fleshed out here, rendering third act surprises more than a little unexpected, and big emotional moments are instead half-puffed balloons.

Ironically, when all's said and done, all you get is a sense of an ending, as some may be left wondering exactly what the big reveal was (you have two obvious options, and may decide you're happy with either). If the filmmaker's decision not to spell it out is cleverer than I am giving him credit for, then the ending perfectly underscores the story's themes around the vagaries of memory, both at the time and over time. If in fact Batra thought he'd made it perfectly clear, he hadn't, but at least it'll provide a few moments of post-cinema discussion.  

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 - Sunday Star Times

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