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The Sense of an Ending

  • Genres: British | Drama
  • Director:  Ritesh Batra
  • Starring: Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter, Charlotte Rampling, Emily Mortimer, Freya Mavor, Michelle Dockery, and Andrew Buckley
  • Runtime: 108 mins.
  • Distributor: Roadshow Films
  • Rating Notes: Mature themes, sex scenes and coarse language
  • IMdB link: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4827986/
  • Reviewed in May 2017

This British-American drama is based on the Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name written by Julian Barnes in 2011. It tells the story of an elderly divorced man who receives a letter that returns him to events that happened decades before. The letter brings back vivid memories of relationships he once had. The movie makes heavy use of flashback.

Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) lives a lonely life as owner-manager of a camera shop in London. His first love, Veronica (Freya Mavor) is still living, and he is divorced from his wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter) with whom he has maintained contact. Margaret and he have a lesbian daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), who is pregnant.

Tony is shaken by news of a death. The news comes in a registered legal letter, and his recollections start to haunt him. They push him to rethink and reassess where his life is at the moment, and what he has done in the past. The letter informs him that the mother of Veronica (Emily Mortimer) has died, and that she has willed something to him that her daughter Veronica, now a grown woman (Charlotte Rampling), is refusing to give him: it is the diary of his close school friend, Adrian (Andrew Buckley), that contains some very uncomfortable secrets.

Looking for emotional support for his disturbing recollections, Tony shares his past with his ex-wife, Margaret, and he tells her secrets that deeply affected his relationship with Veronica and Adrian, which he thinks are related to the suicide of Adrian that occurred years before.

The technology that surrounds delivery of the film’s imagery is impressive. With the help of fluid flashback images, personalities and conversations from one period intriguingly interact and intersect with images from a different time, creating vivid memories that appear to be in the process of unfolding. The movie illustrates compellingly how human memories can be selective and edited conveniently to provide human comfort. Tony has a version of the past which does not reflect actual truth, and as viewers, we slowly come to realise that he is colouring our interpretation of what really happened. Unintentionally, Tony is embellishing his recollections, and remembers “only half the story”.

There is some similarity of this film with the 2015 movie, “45 Years”, where a letter about the past was instrumental in causing the breakdown of a marriage. Charlotte Rampling was the wife in “45 Years” and plays Veronica, as an adult, in this film. Her acting, as well as the acting of Jim Broadbent and Harriet Walter is outstanding. Lingering tragedy for Jim, Veronica, and Margaret has resulted in a lifetime of misunderstanding and/or untold stories.

This is a finely detailed, gently modulated film that penetratingly explores the fallibility of human memory. Its sub-themes canvass youth, ageing, and the complexities of human relationships under stress. The Direction of the film by Ritesh Batra is excellent, and the acting performances demonstrate intelligently how truth can lie hidden or distorted for a lifetime. The film effectively challenges the veracity of human recollections, and easy assumptions about where truth might lie.

This is a movie that maintains a sense of unfolding mystery and richly deserves to be seen. It has plausible moments of melodrama, and the acting and direction of the movie hold one engrossed. In its ending, the Director is telling the viewer, that there is “The sense of an ending” in life that nearly always needs further reflection. Ritesh Batra’s observation in that regard is both astute and correct.


The Sense of an Ending is a distinctive, thoughtful film based on the novel by Julian Barnes’ which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. It’s a film about memory, how it can deceive and change our lives. It also raises interesting questions about the role played by selective memory and objectivity in both individuals and collective history.

Jim Broadbent (The Iron Lady, The Lady in the Van) plays Tony, in many ways a very ordinary middle-class man in his 60s living a conventional life, who is thrown back into the past when he receives a legacy consisting of a diary and letter which forces him to question his life so far, and the decisions he has made.

The Sense of an Ending also raises questions about the nature of time. In the novel The Go-Between, L P Hartley writes: ‘The past is another country’. The novelist William Faulkener once said: ‘The past is not dead; it’s not even past’. The theoretical physicist Lee Smolin argues in his book Time Reborn that only the present is real.

Boasting an impressive cast which includes the inimitable Charlotte Rampling, these questions and those pertaining to Tony’s past are explored, although not completely resolved, in a positive way that allows Tony to move forward in the river of time.

A BBC/US coproduction, The Sense of an Ending is directed by the Indian filmmaker Ratesh Batra, who wrote and directed The Lunchbox, an inspiring film about the role played by a lunchbox in bringing two lonely and unhappy people together (available for download on SBS On Demand).

Batra read Julian Barnes’ novel in 2011. He admits his filmic take is very different to the book in many ways, but Batra brings the book’s complex upper-middle-class characters to life with great empathy and psychological realism.

The film’s point of view is almost entirely that of the emotionally closed-off Tony, and we become aware of this from the story’s many lacunas, and way other characters in the film view him, in particular his daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery from Downton Abbey), ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter), and his passion from the past, Veronica (Rampling).

According to Ritesh, The Sense of an Ending is about growing up in old age. From the point of view of contemporary film-making however, it is another memorable example of how cinema is more than capable of holding its own in the new age of ‘Indie’ TV.


Review by the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting


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This is the ministry of Fr Richard Healey, pastor of St Paul’s Catholic Parish, based in Albion Park, a southern suburb of the city of Wollongong.
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