Ritesh Batra, director of the charming, but sentimental The Lunchbox, does not seem like an obvious choice to tackle Julian Barnes's cool, dryly comic The Sense of an Ending (one of the most loaded titles in recent fiction). Indeed, that slim Booker winner does not exactly scream out for any sort of adaptation. Unreliable narrators are fearfully difficult to accommodate on screen.
Nick Payne’s fine screenplay – though largely faithful – has tweaked the story in such a way as to allay both reservations. The plot is less ambiguous. The protagonist is less reprehensible at the beginning and comes closer to redemption at the close. The changes suit the demands of mainstream cinema and the warm aesthetic Batra exhibited in his first film. This is a smart piece of translation.
Jim Broadbent is grumpy and exasperated as aging Leica specialist Tony Webster (did Barnes consciously name him for a great, super character in the Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin?). Having lived a modestly satisfactory life, he now enjoys toleration by ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and affection from pregnant daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery).
Echoes of the past shake his complacency when a note arrives from an unknown solicitor. It seems that the mother of a former girlfriend – not seen since his university years – has left him a section of a late friend’s diary. The subsequent twists remind one quite how much plot Barnes managed to pack into a novella.
Though the picture makes some effort to dismantle romantic notions of the swinging sixties, the flashbacks are still sufficiently mottled to induce longing sighs. All the men are handsome. All the women are lovely. Max Richter’s superb score does little to dispel the nostalgia for an era most viewers won’t remember.
Back in the present, Broadbent’s performance has real traction. There’s a misanthropy here that could scare off any sensible woman. But the actor’s knobbly charm helps explain why Margaret continues to endure his moaning. It’s hard to imagine anyone other than Walter making so much of a part that involves just listening and sighing.