The Sense of an Ending (film).

I adored Julian Barnes’ Man Booker-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, a spare and unsparing look at how one impetuous act could ruin multiple lives yet leave the actor unscathed until he discovers the consequences decades later. Barnes’ protagonist, Tony Webster, is bright and can think critically except where he’s involved; his lack of self-awareness is the central theme of the work, and Barnes unfurls the history to Tony as he does to the reader, allowing us to share in the main character’s befuddlement, denial, and rationalization in a sort of literary real time.

The film version of The Sense of an Ending came out earlier this year and is now available to rent/buy on amazon or iTunes, and it is excellent but falls just short of the book. The acting is superb, and the story largely hews faithfully to Barnes’ concepts, but alters a few key details in ways that muffle the impact of various revelations – and utterly alter the meaning of the book’s ending.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony, a divorced, very slightly grumpy old man who runs an antique camera shop in his semi-retirement, maintains good relations with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Wheeler), and is on call for the imminent birth of his first grandchild to his unmarried daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery). Tony gets a certified letter saying that a woman he knew decades earlier, Sarah (Emily Mortimer), has died and left him an object, but it turns out that Sarah’s daughter, Veronica (Freya Mavor), whom Tony briefly dated, refuses to part with the object – the diary of Tony’s friend and later Veronica’s boyfriend Adrian. Tony becomes obsessed with obtaining the diary, largely because it’s legally his (rather than any expressed interest in its contents), and his efforts to acquire it lead him to an encounter with Veronica (now played by Charlotte Rampling) and revelations from their shared past that will discolor Tony’s entire understanding of his own actions and character.

This is in so many ways a very British movie, from the way almost everything in it is so understated and even under the surface to the murderer’s row of a cast all delivering sparkling performances. The filmed Tony is less self-aware than the literary one, and Broadbent infuses him with aloofness in manner and accent, as if he is constantly flummoxed by the existence of other people and their feelings. Rampling absolutely seethes in her few appearances in the film, an angrier Veronica than the one in the book, who holds herself above Tony in word and deed because it is the only victory available to her this late in the match. Mortimer also gets limited screen time, only in flashbacks, but the subtlety of her performance as Sarah is more evidence once Sarah’s role in the events that followed becomes clear.

The novel on which this is based is only about 165 pages, but it felt like the film still rushed past some of the book’s flashbacks to Tony’s time in school with Adrian and his dalliance with Veronica. It also changes several major details from the story, not least of which is dispensing with Barnes’ structure, where the book starts with the school days, and the bequest doesn’t happen until about a third of the way into the book, starting part two and causing Tony to reevaluate the story he has narrated in part one. Tony follows Veronica from one of their meetings, somewhat creepily, whereas in the book Veronica shows him what he discovers by stalking her in the movie.

The most unforgivable sin of the film’s script, however, is the ending, which is much kinder to Tony than the book’s conclusion – and kinder than the film version of Tony deserves. He set this all in motion, but the movie’s ending doesn’t make his culpability sufficiently clear, and concludes his story on a somewhat hopeful note – even as we hear the text of a new letter he has sent to Veronica that left me thinking that even after he’s learned the truth, he still doesn’t get it, and at this point, he probably never will.

I don’t usually give grades or ratings of movies, especially since I often write about them months after their release, but in this case I’ll make an exception. This is a good movie that falls short of a great book – a 55 film from a 70 novel, in scouting terms – buoyed by a tremendous cast and that very British way of letting the audience work out a lot of details on its own. If you’ve read the book and enjoyed it like I did, however, you may find the deviations distracting, especially as they’re all to the bad.

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