Sense of an Ending works better on the page than The Sense of an Ending works on the screen. Novels are mental and films are visual and Julian Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker Prize novel, Sense of an Ending, has been acclaimed for elegance, incisiveness and for the powerful unreliable memory of the main character. The Sense of an Ending (directed by Ritesh Batra, also director of the delightful Lunchbox) is a dramatic adaptation of the novel. It glides back and forth in time as we view the disconnected pieces of a previously unexamined life and the exploration of memory’s role in constructing one’s identity.
Tony Armstrong (a subtle performance by Jim Broadbent) becomes obsessed with his college days, after he is bequeathed his best friend’s diary The problem is that the diary is in the possession of his old girl friend Victoria (Charlotte Rampling). She refuses to hand it over. Now a late sixty-something semi-retired shop keeper, Tony’s days are a meandering in a foggy haze of opaque memory.
A mystery begins to unfold, literally, in Tony’s rearview mirror and in his present, as he searches for answers concerning Adrian’s diary. What follows is the destruction of self-identity, friendship, and one’s life story caused by a letter saved from the past.
Some of the most crucial details in character and plot are left to the viewer to determine, and the motivation, regret, and loss of one’s own story are not available to the viewer. Tantalizing clues as to what impact the letter had are sorely lacking.
We all remember an event differently. We’re raised by the same parents, with the same siblings but we still have had different childhoods. Older people have more of a past than the young, so their memories are full of memories of memories–and of ways to construct versions of themselves they feel comfortable with. And how do the things that we forget, choose to leave out or just misremember affect how we view our past, our present, ourselves?
Broadbent tries heroically to suggest his longing to make things right before decrepitude and dying set in–to have the life he chooses to remember, but Sense of an Ending left this viewer wanting more of the interior life–the quiet catastrophe– of this flawed, unlikable character. How does an older self pass judgment on the younger version? Perhaps psychological narratives like Sense of an Ending demand too much from cinematic presentation, visual scenes of the reflection of the mind.