The ads for the new British drama The Sense Of An Ending tell us it is about a man who receives a letter from a long-lost love, thus setting off a mystery that is buried somewhere deep in his mind. Although this film based on Julian Barnes’ 2011 prize-winning book is faithful to its source, in the hands of director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox) and screenwriter Nick Payne, it unfolds as a unique screen mystery, even developing a good level of suspense as it examines the life of Tony Webster both in present day and nearly half a century earlier as a university student.
The basic plot centers on Webster, now in his 70s and played beautifully by Oscar winner Jim Broadbent, who leads a seemingly quiet and ordinary life in England tending to his very pregnant daughter Susie (Downton Abbey’s Michelle Dockery) and still maintaining contact with ex-wife Margaret (brilliantly played by Harriet Walter). One day a letter arrives from the recently deceased Sarah Ford informing him he has been bequeathed with something from his distant past, but in searching for what it actually is he is thwarted by Sarah’s daughter Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), who also happens to be Tony’s old college girlfriend.
Setting off to solve this mystery takes Tony deep into places in his memory that are at odds with the neat and tidy way he has put a certain tragic incident behind him. The film takes us back and forth from that past to present with two sets of actors playing the younger and older version of these characters. As this cinematic puzzle unfolds we slowly learn more, as does Tony, and the themes of ambiguity and the tricks our memories can play come into full view before the film’s conclusion.
Batra deftly moves between these two moments in time with great dexterity and a top-flight cast on both ends. As the younger Tony, Billy Howie is excellent and completely believable as the man Broadbent shows us he becomes. Freya Mavor is very fine as the young Veronica as well, and Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) scores points as Adrian, a central figure in the decades-long mystery leading up to the letter Tony receives. It is in fact another letter written 50 years earlier that plays a key part in these proceedings and leads to Tony’s reunion of sorts with the older Veronica in some piercing and exceptionally well-written scenes between Broadbent and Rampling, two old pros at the top of their game. To say more would be to spoil the discovery the audience will find for themselves as all this plays out.
Emily Mortimer and Matthew Goode are also part of a fine cast in this intriguing and immensely satisfying movie that, as I say in my video review above, is ripe and rare post-Oscars entertainment for high-minded grown-ups who otherwise seem to only have a choice right now between Mutants, Monsters and Mighty Morphins. What a pleasure it is to just sit back and let this exceptional British drama sweep right over you.
CBS Films got involved with it just as it went into production with FilmNation bringing it to fruition. Producers are Ed Rubin and David M. Thompson. CBS Films opens the movie today in Los Angeles and New York before fanning out in the spring.
Do you plan to see The Sense Of An Ending? Let us know what you think.