“Our life is not our life,” says Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), “it’s just a story we’ve told to others.” Such is the theme of “The Sense of An Ending,” a gentle retelling of Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning 2011 novel about human nature and the vagaries of memory.
Webster’s life is uneventful. An alarm wakes him at the same time every day. After a light breakfast he heads to his camera repair shop, puts in his hours and returns home. Occasionally he attends a birthing class with his pregnant-soon-to-be-single-mom daughter (Michelle Dockery) or enjoys a quick phone call with his cagey ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter).
A solicitor’s letter disrupts his quiet semi-retirement. Out of the blue he discovers the mother of his long ago ex-girlfriend Veronica (Freya Mavor) has died and left him something in the will. It is the diary of Adrian (Joe Alwyn) an old friend and classmate at Cambridge. Trouble is, Veronica (played in later life by Charlotte Rampling) doesn’t want to hand it over. Obsessed with getting what is rightfully his, Tony launches an investigation into Veronica and, ultimately, his own unsettled past.
Flip flopping between the present day and 1960s England, “The Sense of An Ending,” is an engaging look at what happens when the debris of a life lived enters into Tony’s well-ordered old age. The story is compelling—although the “as told to” nature of the flashbacks, complete with Margaret’s “so what happened nexts” seem a bit contrived—but the performances are bang on.
Broadbent is a careful mix of curmudgeon and charmer, a self-effacing man forced to confront and rediscover what is important to him. It’s subtle, effortless work and draws us deep into Tony’s tale.
He is supported by strong work from the women in Tony’s life, Walter, Dockery and Rampling. Each are key to the story and each help Tony on his journey of self discovery while never losing themselves or being relegated to stereotypical roles. Also worth a mention is a short but storing performance from Emily Mortimer as Veronica’s mother.
“The Sense of An Ending” is occasionally light and breezy when it should hunker down and dig a little deeper, but Broadbent and Co ensure it is never less than involving.