Anthony ‘Tony’ Webster (Jim Broadbent) is haunted by something he did to someone as a young man while at university. In the present, he receives a letter that forces him to confront his memories of a relationship he had a with a woman in the 1960s. Based on the novel by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending is a British-American film written by Nick Payne and directed by Ritesh Batra. The film stars Jim Broadbent (Brooklyn) and Charlotte Rampling (Broadchurch), with Harriet Walter (The Crown), Emily Mortimer (The Newsroom) and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) in supporting roles.
“When we are young, we want emotions to be like what we read in books” says our narrator Anthony. And he’s absolutely right. When we are children, we are so naive and have no conception of what reality truly is. Life is not a fairy tale. Every choice we make, every decision make, every step we take: all these things have the ability to define us and Tony made one decision that he wouldn’t feel the effects of for fifty years. Living a mainly a solitary life, Tony runs a second-hand camera shop. From rising at 7am to having dinner with his ex-wife Margaret (Walter) to attending to the errands of his pregnant daughter Susie (Dockery), he doesn’t half a life for life’s sake.
When a letter arrives at his door, his life changes forever. But not before being audaciously abrupt with a jolly postman who is just too happy for grumpy Tony. He has been named in the Last Will and Testament of the mother (Emily Mortimer) of the woman he dated at university, Veronica (the younger Freya Mavor). Alas, as I sat there sipping my beer in the niche Errol Flynn Filmhouse in Northampton, I was taken on a trip through two people’s shared history, a story told through their shared memories of one event that changed them both, whether that was for the better, one will never say as we don’t know what could have been.
Looking back on your own life can be troubling, as we often find ourselves not remembering things as they happened, but more so, remembering things as we wanted them to. The mind has a knack for changing or editing events to ameliorate or pejorize them in favour of the pragmatics of a situation. Tony’s interpretation of his own history deteriorates when he’s given proof of his student actions in a meeting with an older Veronica (Charlotte Rampling). Here, Tony begins to see the magnitude of what he did all those years ago and regret begins to set in. And this shows that each of us has a life journey, and numerous lessons are to be learnt if we look back in an honest way.
After watching Netflix’s emotionally provocative drama 13 Reasons Why, I was forced to endure another look at suicide in young people. Yet again, the catalyst is argued to be ‘words’ or the power of them and how they can force one person to commit an act of tragedy. Don’t let the IMDB ratings fool you. This is one of the best-acted films of the year. Honestly, Rampling and Broadbent were born for their parts. Harriet Walter lightens the bleak house of regret as Margaret. She’s charming, witty, insightful and most importantly, honest. Tony’s relationship with his ex-wife is a healthy one, to the point that he can talk to her about this Veronica without holding back. Great.
It’s relationships like this that can give you hope in a world of torment. While this one man has been hurting for half century, she’s thinking that if I can help this man, regardless if he’s my ex-husband, well than that’s something worth living for. Though we soon see that it’s the cold and seemingly emotionless Veronica that needs help as well, who looks to be as lonely as Tony is. Regardless of the countless people around you, the solitude of the mind can be a terrible place. I couldn’t help but feel that Tony got intentionally drunk at his ex-wife’s house just so he could stay the night. Along with family, hope and Dylan Thomas, loneliness is one of many interesting themes discussed.
Whilst our older characters battle it out in the 21st century, we are witness to flashbacks to the period settings of the 1960s, where we see a very archetypal look of what an English private school looks like. We find out Tony loves Dylan Thomas, but we are also privy to philosophical discussions of history’s relativity between the film’s epicentre Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) and the boys’ teacher Mr Hunt (Matthew Goode). Finn is a character in this film and he is the reason for this story but he is not the main character. He’s merely the reason why everyone’s lives have gone to pot, and I mean that as nicely as possible.
There is much to be in awe of in this film. The linking up between past and present has to be commended, as there are few films I have seen that have done it as skillfully and gracefully as this one. The recreation of 60s counter-cultural ideologies is also a grand feat. Having been educated in the British private system, though not in the 60s, I have a sort of first-hand understanding of what schooling may have been like. From the heckling banter to the assemblies to the swearing to the manner in which people talked, this sixties grammar school is very much akin to my memories in the private sector.
From the cast to the writing to the themes, I left the Errol Flynn feeling very gratified. Though, I did also feel like I was having one more of my many existential crises. Jim Broadbent continues to be the powerhouse that he is. He’s a legendary actor in this country and this is one more film to add to his epic filmography. The film’s message is truly in the title, as its ending is not gift-wrapped with a bow. It’s a sense of an ending. Nothing is final because closure is different to each of us, and you don’t always need all the answers to feel good within yourself.