The Lunchbox director Ritesh Batra’s adaption of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is a sensitive, unflinching reflection on the deceptiveness of memory.
I Am a Cameraby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Jim Broadbent stars as Tony Webster, the 60-something hero – or is it civilised middle-class anti-hero? – of Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ novel of the same name. The Sense of an Ending is shaped by his voiceover as he looks back over his life with an increasing understanding of the events about to be revealed.
On the cusp of middle age and old age, Webster is a well-meaning Guardian reader with a small shop in upmarket Clapham Common, selling expensive collector’s-item cameras. He’s happily divorced from his QC wife (an inquisitorial Harriet Walter) and lovingly attentive to his daughter (Michelle Dockery), who’s imminently about to give birth, having chosen single motherhood by sperm donor, even attending NCT classes with her. He seems affable, kindly, considerate, self-deprecating. And yet… His peaceful, pleasantly routine existence is disrupted by the arrival out of the blue of a letter from a firm of solicitors telling him he has been left a diary in the will of the mother of his first love, a long-lost girlfriend from his student days.
Barnes’ novel is in two sections, before and after. The film adapts this using flashbacks that constantly take us back and forth in time, from Webster’s schooldays to university with his intellectually brilliant best friend Adrian Fisk (Joe Alwyn) to his first love, in thrall to Veronica (Freya Mavor) and a weekend with her parents in the country. Though her father is a cipher (James Wilby), her mother Sarah (Emily Mortimer) is a captivating, glamorous figure who sends him subtle flirtatious messages that he is too inexperienced to interpret, and her brother (Edward Holcroft) is unsettlingly direct. Intrigued by the mention of the diary and assuming it is Sarah’s, he chases up its non-arrival from Veronica who has it, and sets in chain events that bring the repercussions of his past actions that he was unaware of flooding back into the present with devastating results that cause him to rethink everything he thought he knew.
The flashbacks are linked by the sending and arrival of letters and by his voiceover that acknowledges the uncomfortable insights he gains – that our emotions support our life as it has become, but not necessarily as it happened.
As the true story of the past emerges, Webster’s sentimental education is painful and Broadbent is perfect in the role of the apparently decent man discovering the extent of his immature misunderstandings and learning that he was not so decent as he thought after all. Charlotte Rampling plays the older Veronica as a taut spring of resentment, prickly as a cat after many years as the keeper of superior knowledge of the unforeseen tragic results of Webster’s actions as a young man.
The Sense of an Ending is melancholic in tone yet still at times also lightly humorous thanks to Broadbent, who’s able to create a central character embodying the paradox of being at the same time sympathetic and unsympathetic. Nick Payne’s script is observant of the strictures of middle-class manners and ultimately gut-wrenching as it revises all the certainties that have gone before.
Director Ritesh Batra, whose previous film set in India, The Lunchbox, was a pastel symphony of unfulfilled longing, has created another sensitive yet unflinching story of emotional connections not quite being made and the quiet devastation that causes. It’s compelling.