Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending nails the emotional essence of Julian Barnes’s novel.
Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending hides a universal truth: we invent memories to feel better about ourselves. We are fundamentally scared and insecure, desperately trying to preserve our sense of selves. How others see us matters less, how we see ourselves matters more. That notion of self-image is paramount to Tony Webster too, the protagonist of Barnes’s novel. Barnes is a masterful prose stylist and The Sense of an Ending unfolds through a third person limited point of view (Tony’s), making it a difficult novel to film. But Ritesh Batra, the director of The Lunchbox, a lyrical drama on loneliness and love, takes this challenge head on.
Unlike the novel, Batra’s The Sense of an Ending opens in the present. We meet Tony (Jim Broadbent) in London, a surly old man, living by himself, who owns a small business selling old cameras. Tony has no time for niceties. When a delivery guy comes to his house, he accepts the order and abruptly shuts the door on him, cutting his “have a nice day”. When a buyer shows up at his store and finds his cameras expensive, Tony doesn’t entertain him further. Like many failed by their pasts, Tony’s present has discontentment and disgruntlement competing for attention.
But Tony’s life is about to change, for the past has come visiting. He learns that his ex-girlfriend’s deceased mother has left a diary for him. That diary belongs to Adrian Finn, his friend, who committed suicide in college. However, Veronica, his ex-girlfriend, who also dated Adrian, refuses to give Tony the diary, claiming she’s burnt it. Time has spun its web and Tony is caught. Batra shows this motif – of a man caught between the past and present, of the former inching towards the latter – with impressive economy: Tony uses a dated cellphone, he wears an old wristwatch, he is not on any social media platform. But time demands change. His watch frequently dies on him and he slaps it repeatedly, willing it to come to life. His daughter gifts him an iPhone, telling him to get with the times. His college friends introduce him to a social network, presumably Facebook, saying, “Welcome to the 21st century!” But the present – accessible and malleable – can be fixed or improved up on; the past – frozen and forgotten – cannot.
Unlike Barnes’s novel, divided into two large chapters, transitioning from Tony’s past to present, Batra’s film frequently intercuts between the two, a choice that befits this adaptation. In fact, Batra often departs from the source material. The book introduces Adrian and his induction into Tony’s group right away: a friendship that, from Tony’s perspective, unfolds with the ferocity of romance, replete with the willingness to please and impress. In Batra’s version, Adrian fully comes into picture only after one-third of the runtime. Similarly, in the book, in Adrian’s memory, Veronica is much more unlikeable and cold. In Batra’s film, the younger Veronica is sweet and accommodating; in fact, it’s her older version, brought to life by a brilliant Charlotte Rampling performance, who exhibits “extraordinary coldness”.
By frequently switching between the past and present, Batra adds new dimension to Barnes’s story. In the book, Tony reflects on his college days; in the film he recounts it to his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter). During one such retelling, he asks her abruptly, “Why did you leave me?” This conversation appears later in the novel (‘“Did you leave me because of me?” “No,” she said. “I left you because of us”’), but by placing it early in the film, Batra shows us an insecure and unsure man. The film nails the emotional essence of the book, too. It understands that we’re fixated on fashioning a story for ourselves which shows us in a positive light; that we tuck certain memories away (Tony had never mentioned Adrian or Veronica to Margaret when they were married); that, no matter how hard we try, some pasts are difficult to let go of (Veronica gifted Tony his first camera; years later, he makes a living by selling vintage cameras); that our greatest ability is the lie we tell ourselves.
Just like the book, the film, too, is centred on a crucial revelation. It is, for Tony, an uncomfortable realisation, and you wish Batra had dwelled on it more, teased out its several unpleasant strands. But he, like Barnes, cuts it short – a choice that makes this movie, just like the book, slightly underwhelming. Elsewhere, too, Batra grapples with the problems of the text-to-screen transition: a voiceover, for example, isn’t an effective substitute for interior monologue; some scenes suffer from needless exposition; some contrasts – especially between the new and the old Tony – are too obvious.
But, like any fine film, The Sense of an Ending invites you to be a part of its world, prompts you to suspend your judgment, provides you a chance to see your failings in others. Like Tony, we are far from perfect. Like him, we also invent convenient lies to mask uncomfortable truths. Like him, we too carry the scars of our past, trying our best to forget and forgive – at times others, sometimes ourselves. Like him, we too deserve to be heard and understood. We may not be as compassionate or virtuous as our hearts trick us to believe, but we have our own reasons, our own versions. Which is why we have stories. In absence of others, we tell them to ourselves – again and again. And in such worlds, blending fact and fiction, we are heroes: beautiful, wronged, misunderstood and deserving of love.