“The Sense of an Ending” is a beguiling tale about selective history
It seems inevitable for us that we misremember our own histories. We are, after all, selfish and forgetful beings. And, as a character says in director Ritesh Batra’s “The Sense of an Ending,” “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” For Tony, the protagonist of the film, his own recollections - about himself and his past - are challenged when he is unexpectedly inherits money and a diary from his college lover’s mother, Sarah (Emily Mortimer).
In the present, Tony (Jim Broadbent), is a retiree who runs a vintage camera shop. He is a curmudgeonly fellow who is more concerned with his own grumblings than his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery). When he first receives notice of his inheritance, he is confused but indignant when it is revealed that Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), his former lover and Sarah’s daughter, will not relinquish the diary that was written by their mutual friend, Adrian Finn. Through scattered flashbacks, both Tony and the audience are forced to piece together why he has received an inheritance and what it means about his relationship with Veronica and Adrian.
The younger Tony (Billy Howle), spends his university years in 1960s England. He is a cocky and intellectual literature major. He and his friends are arrogant and jovial, relying on their youth and confidence to propel them forward. After meeting Veronica at a party, Tony falls in love with her, the younger version played by Freya Manor. Their relationship ebbs and flows, but ultimately culminates with heartbreak when it is revealed that Tony’s best friend Adrian (Joe Alywn) and Veronica are in love. As any heartbroken youth would do, Tony writes them a cruel letter and hastily sends it off. About a month later, Adrian startlingly commits suicide.
On the surface, the premise of the film appears to be more similar to a Lifetime movie with a dash of British humor than an introspective drama. Yet, with natural performances by the actors, “The Sense of an Ending” does not devolve into melodrama. It does, however, fall prey to pretentious intellectualism. There are many positive things to be said about actors who portray unlikable protagonists, but Broadbent’s Tony is an unlikable and overbearingly condescending character. Although Harriet Walter, who portrays Tony’s ex-wife Margaret, is a good foil and voice of reason to Tony’s wallowing, her quips would have been welcomed in a higher frequency. Nonetheless, a strong, but short, performance by the wonderful Rampling makes it bearable.
Ultimately, the film leaves a feeling of dissatisfaction. Is it because we, as the audience, have had to put up with a character who we don’t quite care about for an hour and a half? Perhaps. And truly, there is not much within the film that suggests that Tony will change and not continue to “adjust, embellish, make sly cuts” to his own history. And, since very few ends of the film are tied to a cohesive, well-answered conclusion, it is doubtful he has learned much of anything. I suppose there is merit in the artistic decision, but it left me scratching my head rather than with a smile on my face.
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