"THE SENSE OF AN ENDING" — 3 stars — Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode; PG-13 (thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality and brief strong language); Broadway
"The Sense of an Ending" represents the latest example of the challenges of bringing a book to the screen and the value of casting a veteran actor in a challenging leading role.
Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) isn't the most likable man. He's blunt with the deliveryman, and he has no patience for the odd casual customer who wanders into his camera shop. He's very particular — his shop specializes exclusively in film cameras of a very specific brand — and only begrudgingly accepts the intrusion of new technology into his life.
Tony's daughter Suzie (Michelle Dockery) is about to make him a grandfather. This may or may not bring him closer to his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter), who still provides him with legal counsel. But even though some of the relationships in his life appear stable, Tony still feels like a mournful creature, merely waiting out his days.
Things get more complicated when a woman named Sarah dies, leaving him a personal journal in her will. The journal actually belonged to Adrian Finn, Tony's best friend from college, but since it is currently in the possession of Tony's former college girlfriend, Veronica (Sarah's daughter), getting it back becomes a problem.
Acquiring the journal is the tangible quest that drives "Sense of an Ending's" more intangible plot. As Tony goes about the business of reconnecting with his past, we see flashbacks of his college days, which were dramatic and often tragic. We see his failed courtship with Veronica (played in flashbacks by Freya Mavor), and his life-changing reaction when she and Adrian (Joe Alwyn) later become romantically involved.
In the present, Tony shares his story with Margaret, trying to unpack the meaning of what has happened and is happening to him. Much of it — especially the parts about his courtship with Veronica — is news to Margaret, even though they were married for decades. Eventually, Tony will have to confront his lost love (played in the present by Charlotte Rampling) if he is to get his hands on the mysterious journal.
"The Sense of an Ending" is adapted from a novel by Julian Barnes and mimics the leisurely ebb and flow of a printed story. But where a novel can take its time as it pieces together its puzzle, "A Sense of an Ending" is a little harder to follow on-screen, twisting and turning and second-guessing the connections it is trying to make between all its many dots.
Much of the film is focused on Tony's romantic — and specifically his sexual — frustrations. Veronica is the primary focus of Tony's angst, but director Ritesh Batra at times suggests that Veronica's mother, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), and even Adrian could be the object of Tony's amorous feelings, though they are threads that never feel fully explored.
Broadbent is the single most watchable element of the film, and it is interesting to watch an actor so frequently identified with joviality (he played Professor Horace Slughorn in the Harry Potter films and the bombastic Harold Zidler in 2001's "Moulin Rouge") wrestle with a distinctively cold character.
In one memorable scene, he reconnects with a pair of college classmates, and as the trio tries to search online for a mutual friend, we gaze out over the back of the computer monitor into their confused faces as little more than their reactions tell the story of what they are seeing.
Perhaps it is intentional, but "The Sense of an Ending" really does leave you with only a sense of completion. It is a thoughtful film, populated by a strong, watchable cast, but its cryptic story and detached pacing will likely polarize audiences.
"The Sense of an Ending" is rated PG-13 for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality and brief strong language; running time: 108 minutes.