The Sense of an Ending **

Solid performances can’t overcome a story that sinks when it needs to soar.

Is it worth $10? No

For a movie that highlights the ending in its title, “The Sense of an Ending” doesn’t have much of one. It’s anti-climactic, if anything. This is especially disappointing because the rest of the Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox”) directed film deserves better. For most of the 108 minute running time we are intrigued by the personal history of its protagonist, and the cloudy memory that distorts his recollection. It lends itself to a fascinating guessing game of where it’ll go next, only to find out the destination leaves something to be desired.

Set in London, Tony Webster is a churlish, impatient malcontent. Because he’s played with endearing vulnerability by Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent (“Iris”), we like him anyway. He’s divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter), and his daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is pregnant with no father in the picture. But they’re not the source of Tony’s distress. That comes when he gets a letter from Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer), whose daughter Veronica (played by Charlotte Rampling when older) dated Tony 40 years earlier. There’s a diary from Tony’s old school chum, Adrian (Joe Alwyn) that was left to Tony but is in Veronica’s possession. Getting the diary, and subsequently what’s in it, comprise the bulk of the story.

For perspective, we also have flashbacks to young Tony (Billy Howle) and Veronica (Freya Mavor) dating, and see how Adrian came into their lives. These flashbacks are welcome and essential, as they add perspective to the present day and allow the film’s overall narrative to build in tension. And to be sure, there are twists along the way that keep us on our toes, but the script by Nick Payne (based on the book by Julian Barnes) is careful to never turn into a soap opera.

What’s compelling here is the way Batra plays with memory, and how our emotions sometimes sanitize unsavory events to make us feel not so horrible about them. This makes sense as an instinct of self-preservation, but it also welcomes delusion, and one of the film’s shortcomings is that there aren’t more consequences for Tony’s misremembering. Relatedly, Payne’s script recognizes that we cannot know exact truths unless we experienced them ourselves, and even then there are the sugarcoated memories in play. This is an important theme, as what Tony recalls happening in the past is directly related to what we’re seeing in the present. If only Batra did more with these themes besides present them, make us consider them, and then ultimately render them moot.

The elements in “The Sense of an Ending” are fodder for a better movie than what we get, making it a wasted opportunity to create a piece of art that truly resonates. Broadbent, Rampling and the rest of the cast are fine, but there’s only so much they can provide when the story doesn’t do them justice.

Did you know?
Rampling received a Best Actress Oscar nomination for “45 Years” (2015), which was also about a prior relationship that comes back to haunt her character years later.

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