The Sense of an Ending evolves from a short, stinging Julian Barnes novel that won the Booker Prize, in part for the way it presented human memory as a faulty and evasive tool of self-protection.
The philosopher Barbra Streisand was even more succinct: What’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget.
She might suggest another title for The Sense of an Ending: The Way We Weren’t.
It applies to this story of Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a divorced and retired London man, a rude and smug fellow who's convinced himself that he's happier on his own.
He runs a shop that sells vintage cameras, and there is probably meaning in this: An analog camera records an image, capturing a literal record of an actual event.
Tony, on the other hand, has recorded past events in his all-too-human mind, with its digital-camera’s capacity to delete, alter, filter, reconstruct, and rearrange in a way that is often self-flattering and exculpatory.
These compositions are recorded as “memories” unless challenged -- as Tony is when he receives news of a strange inheritance.
The mother (Emily Mortimer) of a former schoolmate (Charlotte Rampling, fine as usual in a small role) has died and left Tony a diary, written by another old school chum, long dead.
The Sense of an Ending follows Tony as he tries to obtain the diary (Rampling’s character is loath to part with it), a process that obliges him to take an unblinking look, for the first time in decades, at the events of his youth (seen via extensive flashbacks). As Tony reconstructs his personal history, it requires him to confront omissions and cast aside self-serving “alternative facts” he has used to supplant the uncomfortable truth.
Some viewers find this truth inscrutable as well as uncomfortable. Plot points appear to go unexplained (some found the book baffling as well). The consequences, though, are plain enough: Tony takes a hard look at himself, at his assumptions about others. It's a quietly grueling process that Broadbent makes resonant. Also good are Harriet Walter (Tony's ex) and Michelle Dockery (his daughter). The latter roles have been expanded (for the better) in the transition to screen.
There are those who say Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) has taken the gut-punch impact out of Barnes’ novel, and via Broadbent’s geniality and the director’s own instinct for empathy, turned it mushy.
That seems harsh. With apologies to the Booker Prize, the scandalous events of Tony’s past (at the root of his self-deception), in addition to being hard to parse, seem like something from a bad episode of Downton Abbey. I think Batra is smart to have shifted the movie’s focus to Tony’s adult missteps, which, after all, he’s in a position to do something about. And does, in a way that is decent and humane.