“How often do we tell our own life story?”
The notion of a life story is one which quietly dominates the human subconscious. We are constantly asking people to make reference to it, especially when we meet someone new; asking them about the events which have led them to the point where they are with you. Everything we have ever said or done is a part of our life story; but not all of that is necessarily remembered as it happened, and we can’t always know how our story has affected the stories of others. The Sense Of An Ending explores what happens when we do find that out.
Adapted from the Man Booker prize winning novel by Julian Barnes; The Sense Of An Ending is the story of Tony Webster; told in both the present and the past; played by both Jim Broadbent (Brooklyn) and Billy Howle (Glue). Present Tony discovers he has been left a diary in the estate of Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer, Hugo), the deceased mother of his University ex-girlfriend Veronica (Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years; and Freya Mavor, Sunshine On Leith); a diary which Veronica is refusing to relinquish to him. This conflict is what our story is built around; a retrospective into Tony Webster’s life as a young man, and how his decisions in the past have impacted on his life in the present. It’s told mostly through the medium of Tony consulting his attorney ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter, The Crown) on the legal matter of the diary, but the story goes far beyond that.
As this is the story of Tony Webster, Broadbent takes front and centre in this film and carries it wonderfully; a fact which should come as a surprise to no-one. Tony is a complicated figure with a lot of idiosyncrasies; he moves seamlessly from cantankerous old fuddy-duddy to liberal ‘60’s throwback in the space of a sentence. As the story progresses and we discover more about the events which have led to his current situation; he demonstrates the revelations about his own character with great skill and subtlety; navigating a complex character arc with ease and grace.
Though lacking the same experience as Broadbent; Billy Howle approaches the role of Young Tony with a similar enthusiasm and skill. Young Tony is notably different to the modern Tony; brash and arrogant at times, shy and delicate at others; his retrospective persona evolving as modern Tony’s recollection of events changes. Howle is not only charged with the task of moving the story of a young man in his formative years but also enacting the more dramatic events which will inform the revelations in the present; a task which Howle performs with much gusto and the promise of a bright future.
While Broadbent and Howle both form the primary focus of the piece, one must not understate the importance of the supporting cast in this film. Veronica Ford goes through a similar transformation to Tony; with two very differing characters portrayed in turn by Rampling and Mavor. Young Veronica is the textbook definition of the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl; a mysterious, aloof and playful character with a lot of conflicting emotions, whose interactions with the young Tony can be as frustrating as they can be endearing. Mavor moves through the ups and downs of this character with the same dexterity as Howle, and the two play off each other brilliantly. It’s a combination which other directors should be keen to reunite in future projects.
Rampling takes Veronica in a completely different direction, as the modern-day version of the character is much more cold and stoic in nature; particularly towards Tony. Rampling plays her with great elegance and poise (which, once again, should be of no surprise); beautifully navigating a difficult emotional response during some of the most tense and poignant moments of the film. Her chemistry with Broadbent is the perfect mirror to that of Howle and Mavon, an icy tension that is the polar opposite of the playful encounters of their younger counterparts.
The rest of the supporting cast also puts a lot into the story; Walter’s portrayal of Margaret Webster helps illuminate the layers of what Tony’s past would lead to him becoming, and she plays an important role in the modern Tony’s emotional journey. The young Sarah Ford and Tony’s daughter Susie (played by Michelle Dockery, Downton Abbey) also shine in their scenes, providing insight into Tony’s life in a positive way, despite their disappointingly limited time on screen.
It’s hard to discuss much else in detail without giving away too much of the story; the downside of reviewing a film so intricately layered as this. A nod must be given to the director, Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), who constructs each scene beautifully, and deftly takes the cast and audience on an emotional journey through the multiple time periods. He plays with the flashback concept in an interesting way, which, again, I won’t spoil here; but his realization of events through Tony’s memories at certain points is wonderfully inventive.
The Sense Of An Ending is a beautiful film with an incredibly engaging story. The strong performances across the board drive the piece forward, led by a combination of Broadbent’s incredible skill and experience ad Batra’s imagination and ingenuity. Be prepared for a complex emotional journey – but don’t let the thought of it put you off, as this is a fine example of the strong, character driven cinema that the British film industry is best known for.
Dave McGuckin is a theatre graduate, bar manager, former comedian and eternal film lover from Northern Ireland, now living in Canada. He began writing film reviews in 2016 for The Grade and then Great Central, both based in Leicester, England.
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