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The Sense of an Ending
★★★☆☆
First run Theater cinema

The Sense of an Ending is a small British drama based on the 2011 Man Booker Prize winning novel by Julian Barnes. It is the second feature directed by Indian filmmaker Ritesh Batra, and like his début The Lunchbox (2013), character details take prominence over the story’s intriguing concept and structure. 

Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a dour, not especially nice older man, who slowly discovers that the events of his past are not exactly as he remembers them. Tony mostly keeps to himself apart from the time he spends with his feisty, independent ex-wife (Harriet Walter) and his pregnant, unmarried daughter (Michelle Dockery). His well ordered life is upended when a solicitor’s letter arrives from the recently deceased mother of his old college girlfriend, Veronica, bequeathing him a diary from 50 years ago he has long forgotten about. But the diary itself is withheld, which starts Tony on a journey to find out why. 

When settling into The Sense of an Ending, audiences should not expect an elaborate mystery like Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. Nick Payne’s screenplay avoids devolving into the mess of red herrings and contrived plots twists that movie adaptations of books of this type often succumb to. The film tells a simple story but one that takes on a universal and almost impenetrable subject—the way we all unconsciously edit and rewrite our memories, conveniently saving the things that fit our perceptions and forgetting the rest.

Payne and Batra gently approach this thorny but critically important concept; carefully peeling away layer by layer through a flashback structure that never feels gimmicky or unnecessarily nonlinear.  By the time key plot points are revealed, we’re no longer focused on the puzzle Tony is trying to solve.  Instead, we're concentrating on the puzzle that Tony is—and this gets us thinking about our own beliefs and internal contradictions.

The splendid cast also helps mitigate the potential for this material to turn into an empty keep-the-audience-guessing machine. In addition to Walter and Dockery, the film features wonderful supporting turns from Emily Mortimer, Billy Howle, Andrew Buckley, Peter Wright, Matthew Goode, and a stunning, icy Charlotte Rampling. But the key to this picture’s success is Broadbent’s subtle and honest embodiment of the unremarkable yet intriguing Tony. I’ve complained frequently of how tired I’ve grown of seeing this over-used actor lazily cast as the same quirky old English eccentric in movie after movie. But it’s been ages since I saw Broadbent in a leading role, and I had forgotten what a remarkable actor he can be when given the screen time to create a fully realized character. This is not the comically exaggerated clown found in Moulin Rouge!, Hot Fuzz, and Cloud Atlas but the nuanced, unadorned actor of Life Is Sweet, Iris, and Another Year.

Twitter Capsule:
Carefully crafted to minimize contrived plots twists in favor of thoughtful character details

Directed by Ritesh Batra
Produced by David M. Thompson and Ed Rubin

Written by Nick Payne
Based on the novel by Julian Barnes

With: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, James Wilby, Edward Holcroft, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor, Joe Alwyn, Peter Wight, and Oliver Maltman

Cinematography: Christopher Ross
Editing: John F. Lyons
Music: Max Richter

Runtime: 108 min
Release Date: 10 March 2017
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Color