The memory is a peculiar thing that can seamlessly edit distant recollections with a rose-tinted gloss. Therefore an inaccurate yet pristine highlight reel is the only thing available when trying to reminiscence over hazy past events. This retentive conundrum is at the centre of Julian Barnes’ 2011 Booker Prize winning novel The Sense Of An Ending, which has been adapted by British playwright Nick Payne for its on-screen transition.
Jim Broadbent stars as curmudgeonly divorcee Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a reclusive retiree who spends most waking hours tinkering around his pokey vintage camera shop. Tony’s stony social interactions are seemingly limited to a minimal trickling of time-wasting customers (whom he outright dismisses) and his endlessly chipper postman (the recipient of countless hasty door slams). Steadfast ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and heavily pregnant daughter Susie (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) are the only things grounding Tony from a perpetual state of hermitry.
Upon discovering he has been bequeathed the diary of an old school friend Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), by the mother of an old girlfriend, Tony is forced to revisit his version of the past and his very first love affair.
Director Ritesh Batra (2013’s BAFTA-nominated The Lunchbox) taps into the often neglected silver pound market, offering up a darkly tragic look at the unreliability of nostalgia. Snaking between two fragmented timelines (the present and Tony’s swinging sixties university years), The Sense Of An Ending falters under the jarring weight of humdrum flashbacks and a distinct lack of emotive impact. For a film that deals with a number of affecting issues including suicide, the overall tone feels alarmingly aloof at times lending an unsettling and numbing quality to the plot’s proceedings.
The melancholic narrative is comparable to Andrew Haigh’s superior 45 Years (which both star the estimable Charlotte Rampling), whereas 45 Years showed with gut-punching precision the poisonous consequences an obsession with the past can have, The Sense Of An Ending ends up feeling like a diluted Sunday night television drama (perhaps fittingly, this is a BBC Films production).
The unsuspecting bursts of comedy throughout are a welcome break to the monotony of spiralling self-indulgent narcissism and escalating tragedy. When Tony accompanies his daughter to a weekly antenatal class, the increasingly exasperated Susie implores her dad not to offend the artificially inseminated lesbian couple or the deadly serious class instructor. It’s a chucklesome moment that bathes the film in some warm normality.
Despite its best efforts even a stellar British cast can’t save this creaky melodrama, which ultimately asks too much from its unappreciated audience.
The Sense Of An Ending is out in UK cinemas on the 14th April.