It’s surprising just how unnerving it feels to be watching Jim Broadbent in a – relatively – sedate role. Usually the embodiment of joviality in his work, The Sense of an Ending sees Broadbent unveil a performance which is painstakingly controlled, and fastidiously measured to the point of nuance. Not that this unexpected from the award winning star of Iris and Moulin Rouge, but it is certainly a welcome shift in tone from an actor normally typecast as beaming, booming and bumbling.
Directed by Ritesh Batra, and adapted from the eponymous Man Booker Prize winning novel by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending sees Broadbent play Tony Webster, a divorcee, shopkeeper and curmudgeon, living a life of routine in tandem to generally amicable relationships with his wife (Harriet Walter) and their daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery). Every morning he wakes to his seven-sharp alarm, has toast for breakfast and reads the newspaper, to which he writes ponderously philosophical letters on matters such as the law of averages. Much can be learned of a man from his interactions with others and it is through these that Batra captures Tony as being a man distanced from both the modern world and human emotional dynamics. Nick Mohammed’s postman, Danny, for instance, is merely an ephemeral distraction. This is, however, to be challenged when Tony receives a letter declaring him a beneficiary in the Will of his first ex-girlfriend’s mother: Sarah Ford, played in flashback by Emily Mortimer. The bequest sees Tony inherit from Sarah a sum of money and attached item; the McGuffin of the story is that said item is by no means attached. Driven initially by intrigue and a righteous desire to have that which is his, the diary of an old friend of his from University – one who came to an unhappy end in suicide, Tony quickly finds himself embroiled in uncomfortable memories from the past. Reminiscences of a troubled love, a fractured friendship and a deeply regrettable letter.
On stylistic and tonal levels, Batra’s film is reminiscent of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (not least due to the presence of that film’s Charlotte Rampling as Tony’s aforementioned ex, Veronica), whilst the intellectual sparring of adolescent males with their youthful tutor (Matthew Goode) brings Alan Bennet’s The History Boys to mind. If Batra’s last, and first. feature (2014’s The Lunchbox) was a warm and affirming directorial debut, his sophomore effort is, by contrast, a surprisingly cold one. Indeed, emerging from The Sense of an Ending makes for a somewhat puzzling experience. Well acted, thoughtfully directed and granted momentum by an enticing, drip-fed plot, it’s a shame that the film never quite feels involving. The primary issue, in this regard, seems to be that this very detachment is seemingly employed by Batra as being a necessity in capturing the themes of the story itself. ‘When you’re young,’ Broadbent narrates in the opening, ‘you want your emotions to be like the ones you read in books’ – the reality, as the film implies, lends nothing so simple.
The film alternates between the present day and Tony’s uni days of the 1960s – an epoch in which Tony seems to be rather stuck, as embodied by his occupation selling and repairing vintage cameras. Batra is at all points keenly aware of the significance of time in Barnes’ story, with symbols and metaphors peppered through the mise-en-scène. Twice Tony is told ‘Welcome to the twenty-first century’ whilst four times we are privy to Tony’s repetitive morning routine, captured by the regularity of piercing alarm, which bursts from an audibly accentuated ticking clock. Similarly, constant references are made to the watches worn by characters and it is a pointed motif that sees them regularly turned inward on the wrist, a gesture denying the control of time on our existence (which just happens to look really cool too). Except, ‘Time and tide tarry for no man’ says Tony’s tutor, an unavoidable truth further emphasised by the cyclicality of a plot which is instigated by death, and anticipatory of birth.
Perhaps it is that the 1960s flashback scenes feel a little one note in parallel to their present day counterparts that shallows the film’s emotional depth? Certainly much of the runtime is spent there. So much so, in fact, that Rampling is left rather underused aside her talent and prime positioning in the film’s promotion. Billy Howle (a dead-ringer for Eddie Redmayne) and Freya Mavor do decent enough jobs as the young Tony and Veronica respectively, whilst Mortimer shines, but it is hard ever to feel more than passively engaged in these scenes. Similarly, Tony’s emotional detachment in the opening third of the film renders him a somewhat oblique and un-endearing protagonist; his morally dubious youth thus feels hardly surprising in its unfurling.
Though The Sense of an Ending is a neatly made and finely performed production, it is one that always seems to be building to an emotional pay off that never quite comes. On an intellectual level there is much in the film to chew on, but, on more emotional terms, it is a sense of dissatisfaction that will greet you in its ending.