“The Sense of an Ending,” Julian Barnes’s elegant Man Booker Prize-winning novel, receives a tasteful if necessarily limited adaptation in Ritesh Batra’s film. Tasteful, because few could argue with Batra’s genteel, reserved tone and approach; limited because no movie can do justice to the interiority and ambiguity that have been polished to a high sheen by Barnes over the course of his decadeslong career.
The inherent superiority of the written word notwithstanding, Batra has done a credible and even commendable job of translating Barnes’ intricate prose to the screen, opening up some of its corners, burrowing into its time shifts and, most gratifyingly, elaborating on a few otherwise marginal characters.
Here, Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a divorced retiree who lives a largely solitary existence in his well-kept townhouse. Still on friendly terms with his ex-wife, Margaret (the wonderful Harriet Walter), Tony leads a purposefully dull life, full of daily rituals and the studied avoidance of modern conveniences like email and Facebook. When a surprising letter arrives in the mail — informing him that he’s been left an artifact of his youth in the will of the mother of his college girlfriend — Tony is forced out of his comfortable habits, resulting in a vertiginous reconsideration of a pivotal episode that his memory has dramatically distorted over time.
Thematically, “The Sense of an Ending” bears more than a passing resemblance to “Atonement” (written by Barnes’ contemporary, Ian McEwan) in that both stories center on the rashness of youth, a moment of wanton destruction and the tidal pull of final reckonings. Unlike Joe Wright’s often bold adaptation of McEwan’s book, Batra has given “The Sense of an Ending” a well-heeled, understated screen treatment, with Broadbent inhabiting Tony’s set ways with curmudgeonly bemusement and dashes of acerbic humor. He’s a joy to watch, especially when sparring with Margaret, who calls him on his most self-flattering narratives and goads him into a more honest appraisal of his past actions.
Margaret is one of the characters that screenwriter Nick Payne has wisely beefed up; the filmmakers have also given more of a story line to Tony and Margaret’s daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), whose impending single-motherhood sometimes feels like a conceit, but still airs out a story that might otherwise seem too precious and solipsistic. Batra, whose 2013 romance “The Lunchbox” was an art house sensation, skillfully navigates the play of present and past in Tony’s life, gracefully introducing shards of memory in flashing moments of magical realism. The film only gains more life force when the magnificent Charlotte Rampling arrives on the scene in a role that’s both enigmatic and bracingly clarifying.
“The Sense of an Ending” looks terrific, suffused as it is with British manners and everything-in-its-placeness. It’s a cozy movie with a decidedly un-cozy message — about the perils of resuscitating our pasts, and the even bigger risk of leaving them be.
Some may continue to wonder whether the truth hurts more when it’s fallow, or furrowed and unearthed. For Tony, however, the answer to the question winds up being shocking and exhilarating.