Mark Reviews Movies

The Sense of an Ending


2 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Ritesh Batra

Cast: Jim Broadbent, Billy Howle, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Freya Mavor, Joe Alwyn, Charlotte Rampling, Emily Mortimer, Jack Loxton, Timothy Innes, Peter Wight, Hilton McRae, Matthew Goode, Edward Holcroft, James Wilby

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 3/10/17 (limited); 3/17/17 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 16, 2017

"Something happened." That's the most and best that can be said of a historical event, according to a philosophically minded student at a secondary school. The specifics of an event and the motivations behind it, the student goes on to argue, are impossible to determine the further one gets away from the event in time. Documentation, from which the historical record is derived, is inherently tainted by the viewpoints and agendas of the contemporaries of a given event. It might sound like a long-winded bit of sophistry—a means for the student to avoid giving a direct answer in class. There's truth to it, though, and it's a truth that The Sense of an Ending explores.

That the movie does so in its own, rather long-winded way is both the movie's immediate strength and its ultimate weakness. The screenplay, adapted from Julian Barnes' novel by Nick Payne, is structured as a series of memories from an unreliable narrator. The narrator is unreliable, not only because of the decades that have passed since the events of his young adulthood, but also for simpler reasons: He doesn't want to remember what actually happened.

Tony Webster, played as an older man by Jim Broadbent, has spent the entirety of his life since then telling himself the story he wanted to hear. He hasn't told other people, because he has convinced himself that it wasn't important enough for an audience. He has told these lies so many times within the vacuum of his memory that he also has become convinced that things happened in ways that run contrary to the actual events. The movie's purpose is to parse out the lies and omissions from the truth.

It's fascinating in the moment, because Payne and director Ritesh Batra don't hold our hands through the constant changes of Tony's story. The filmmakers trust that we'll spot the presence of a lie as the story of the past progresses and as Tony revises his narrative when pressed for information. They don't just trust that part of it, either. They trust that we'll draw the more significant conclusion: If our protagonist is lying about or omitting something relatively small, what's to say that he isn't lying about or omitting information of actual consequence?

In the present day, Tony runs a second-hand camera shop, where he seems happier sitting alone with his cameras than with making any money from the few customers who have to knock to enter, because he keeps the door locked. He's divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walker), and their daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is pregnant with her first child.

A letter arrives from an attorney. Tony has inherited the diary of an old classmate—the philosophical student—from the mother of an old flame. His ex-girlfriend from so long ago is keeping the diary from him. Tony desperately wants it, though, because he believes the diary may hold the key to understanding why his friend committed suicide.

The scenes in the past begin as Tony relating what he remembers (and what he wants to remember) to his ex-wife. A younger Tony (played by Billy Howle) meets a woman named Veronica (Freya Mavor) in college. While staying at her family home for the weekend, he's drawn to Veronica's mother (Emily Mortimer), although the elder Tony insists that there was no sexual relationship with either woman.

The scenes are a jumble but not in the sense that they are without context. The jumble is in how Tony presents it to Margaret and how he gradually pieces together the truth of what happened. He insists that his relationship with Veronica had little to no effect on him, and one of the movie's keener observations is in how it juxtaposes the past and the present to reveal that initial lie. Tony has a brief flash of Veronica cracking his knuckles for him, and it's a habit that he has continued throughout his life. There's the camera shop, too, which has become a hobby in his retirement. Veronica was an amateur photographer.

There are two big mysteries here—one answered for the most part and the other remaining an open question. The first is what part Tony played in the events that led to his friend's suicide. The second is the reason for the suicide. The screenplay is, theoretically, correct in choosing which of these to answer. Of great significance is a letter that an elder Veronica (played by Charlotte Rampling) brings to Tony's attention about halfway through the story. The omission of the letter and its contents is, perhaps, the most damning of Tony's lies, although it points to his central character flaw. This is a man who cannot see the impact his actions have on other people and, therefore, can never admit he is wrong.

That's about it, though, and the movie keeps repeating this theme throughout the past and present-day scenes. As a puzzle about memory and the repression of the less-than-admirable parts of those memories, The Sense of an Ending succeeds by means of its constantly shifting, back-and-forth structure. As a piece about this character, though, it comes up short in the end, because the story's most important mystery is not and was never about him. That's the point, of course, but the movie's final, foggy revelations feel more like a trick than the truth.

Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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