Based on Julian Barnes’ Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Sense of An Ending has opened in New York and Los Angeles, directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), and adapted by playwright Nick Payne (Constellations). A cast of veterans led by Jim Broadbent (Le Weekend, Brooklyn), Harriet Walter (The Crown), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) and Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) bring to life this mysterious tale about the ways an unanticipated blast from the past can force us to examine the narratives we’ve created about ourselves.
Broadbent and Walter are an amicably divorced couple whose daughter, played by Dockery, is about to have a child. Rampling enters their lives unexpectedly when a legacy exhumes, piece by shard, the shocking details of her long-ago relationship with Broadbent.
The director, along with Broadbent, Walters and Dockery spoke about the movie this week during a lunch thrown by CBS Films at the Lotos Club. Walter has just come off a celebrated performance as Prospero in The Tempest, the latest in a revelatory series of all-female productions of Shakespeare staged by Phyllida Lloyd. Broadbent, who played the wise priest in Brooklyn, had a similar role to the one in Sense opposite Lindsay Duncan in the earlier Le Weekend.
The chief issue with the film was the one that concerns Barnes as well: What happens when the complacency with which we carry on in late middle age is upended by unsettling truths about our past – and what are the consequences not only for loved one, but for ourselves, ultimately?
For Walter, the challenge was playing a wife who had become a best friend and confidant to a man she knew to be flawed, and how she now deals with the disturbing revelations he fitfully confides to her:
“I focused on not making her very judgmental,” she said. “She’s internally judgmental but she’s also generous. She sees through him but tolerates what she sees. They’ve remained very good friends. She’s gone through the bitterness and come out the other end, saying he’s alright.”
Asked whether he sought out such uneven characters, Broadbent drew a laugh when he said, “I don’t seek anything! I wait for people to present me with options and they’re usually much more interesting than anything I would come up with. I’m fairly easy to persuade. I love the complexity of those characters. They’re not easy, they are difficult, they’re as complex and as difficult as we all are.”
His character, Tony, gets a major jolt when he’s given a savagely cruel letter he’d written back in the day. It’s deliberately unclear whether Tony forgot about the letter or has blocked out any memory of having “written such an appalling thing” so unlike the kind of man Tony
believes himself to be, but Broadbent said he’d played the role as if Tony had forgotten about it, perhaps to make his memory consistent with the “unreliable stories we tell ourselves, about ourselves.”
I asked him whether men and women had different reactions to the film, and while it’s too early to tell, he confirmed that had been his experience with Le Weekend, in which a British couple nearing retirement try to spark their marriage by recreating their honeymoon in Paris, with disastrous results.
The Sense of An Ending is likely to prompt similar disagreements. “I was telling someone last night I felt that women come out much better in this, the women are more grown up and mature than the men are,” Broadbent said. “But the woman I was talking to said ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s the case, Veronica [Rampling’s character] has a lot to answer for.”
You’ll have to see and decide for yourself. But one thing both Walter and the younger Dockery agreed on is the availability of great chey complex leading roles for women. Hence Walter’s relishing the Shakespeare project, in which she already has played Brutus in Julius Caesar and the title role in Henry IV, a role, The New York Times said, she “was born to play.”
“Zeitgeist is so important,” Walter mused. “There have been several moments in my career when I have wanted to do things like that, make the daring statement, go down the exciting, explorative route, and things around me have not been helpful. Particularly as actors, we are quite a long way down the food chain, and so the idea of proactively making these exciting things happen is not quite correct. But I like to think that in what I have put out there that I’ve suggested to people of like mind that that’s the sort of work they might offer me.
“Occasionally,” she added, “it works out.”