“Everyone is the unreliable narrator of their own lives.” That’s the recurring theme in British author Julian Barnes’s 2011 Booker prize-winning novella The Sense of an Ending. Ritesh Batra’s adaptation, based on a screenplay by British playwright Nick Payne, unfolds like a mystery. There isn’t a crime scene to investigate, but rather the detritus of fading memories.
A death disturbs the restful calm of English septuagenarian Tony Webster’s comfortable life. As the result of a legacy bequeathed to Tony (Jim Broadbent) by Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer), the mother of his old girlfriend Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), Tony is forced to revisit the memories buried deep within the recesses of his mind. While negotiating a tricky relationship with his heavily pregnant daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) and ex-wife Harriet (Margaret Walter), he must come to terms with a decision made by his younger self that defined him.
Like a mind drifting from one thought or incident to another based on a word, a smell or a solitary moment, the film flits between the past and the present. The flashbacks are snippets of Tony’s youth and like the audience, he too seems to be unable to make too much sense of them in the beginning. Confusion pervades most of the film, but that does not seem to be entirely intentional. A passing familiarity would be required with the source novel to make true sense of the many brief encounters.
The lovingly crafted 108-minute film plays careful attention to 1960 styles and recreates it with a soundtrack heaving with hits from that decade. It is in the quietly menacing moments between Rampling and Broadbent, both in top form, that the film comes alive. In their intense but brief interactions, the film moves from a well-intentioned prestige drama to a searching exploration of the uneasy relationship between memory and truth.
Batra’s debut The Lunchbox (2013) was shot through with a strong sense of humanism and the fundamental belief that people are mostly good. Here too, Tony becomes a crusty curmudgeon whose chief difficulty is the inability to communicate his feelings. The momentous revelation in the final act proves otherwise, but both Batra and Broadbent reach for the sentimental instead of a touch of the acerbic.