“The Sense of an Ending” – “The difference between false memories and true ones is the same as for jewels: it is always the false ones that look the most real, the most brilliant.” – Salvador Dali
Tony Webster’s (Jim Broadbent) life appears in order. Retired, he now owns a small, vintage camera shop and – generally speaking – minds his own business, when he is not accompanying his single, pregnant daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), to her Lamaze classes, of course. He supports Susie as best he can, but surely, he feels out of his element.
On an ordinary afternoon, the contents of an envelope knock Tony off-balance too, when he reads that Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer) passed away. It just so happens that Sarah left him a personal memento, which she possessed from their mutual friend. Complications and frustration arise, however, because family entanglements prevent him from properly receiving this very important keepsake.
From the minute that Tony opens the letter, memories from 50 years ago entangle him too. They do not necessarily flood back, but frequently occupy his mind – like waves striking a vulnerable, sandy beach – over the next few weeks. These synaptic surges open up a puzzle, one from the very distant past. Piecing it together can be immensely complicated, especially when Tony originally believed that his life appeared in near-perfect order, with no mysteries to solve.
Director Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox” (2013)) unveils the mystery of Julian Barnes’ novel on the big screen. Set in present-day London, Batra interjects frequent flashbacks from the 1960s, Tony’s college years. Sometimes, a 2017 trigger sends the narrative back for long stretches. In other instances, ancient visions flash in front of him, like the sudden, temporary appearance of his first love, Veronica (Freya Mavor), sitting behind a laptop in place of a random legal secretary.
The onscreen relapses do feel unwanted – to the audience – at times, because the film does not seemingly set a deliberate pattern of when they appear in front of Tony. Then again, unless human beings sit in constant mediation for 24-hours a day, we do not own complete control of when our memories materialize. In my case, for instance, any 2017 conversation about rustic, 24-hour diners, can immediately send my mind to a 2 a.m. pancake experience at a Long Island establishment in 1992. In retrospect (pardon the pun), the film’s numerous flashbacks do feel appropriate, almost like an additional character repeatedly bumping into us on a figurative busy street corner.
With London as a beautiful, urban backdrop, Tony feels bent on solving his conundrum and pursues the one person who could help, Veronica (Charlotte Rampling). Rampling is perfectly cast as the mysterious ex-girlfriend from a lifetime ago and delivers a cool, rigid performance. Veronica stands as a 5’ 6 1/2” roadblock to Tony’s personal mini-salvation and cryptically doles out information like an emotional-pained grim reaper. This only makes Tony’s journey more difficult, as the screenplay slowly unveils the complex truth, one careful step into the past at a time.
Broadbent and Rampling – two skilled, veteran character actors – wonderfully duel in a game in which only one is wholly unaware of history, while the other lived it all too well. This is a frequently-used device in storytelling, but “The Sense of an Ending” offers something more. Tony’s dilemma is not an uncommon one, because a distorted view of history based upon memories is inherently human. The film explores this imperfect slice of the human condition and forces us to ask how we view our own experiences. What mysteries exist right in front of our faces, or to be more accurate, deep within our own incomplete versions of the past?
Looking back to my Long Island diner experience from 25 years ago, which specific words were spoken over coffee and carbohydrates after midnight that I absorbed back then, but am missing now? Shucks. Try as I might, I cannot remember.
Image credits: CBS Films, StudioCanal