In dramatic terms, the stuffy, storied reserve of the British is best served by subverting it. This subversion is the bedrock of much British comedy, which, in puncturing decorum, often veers into outright silliness. But such an undermining can also have its serious uses, as in Julian Barnes’s Man Booker-winning 2011 novel, “The Sense of an Ending,” which is now a movie starring Jim Broadbent as Tony, a mildly cranky septuagenarian whose youthful past suddenly intrudes upon his humdrum life and forces a day of reckoning.
Barnes’s novel is about the ways in which people selectively protect their memories. The film, directed by Ritesh Batra (who made the wonderful “The Lunchbox” several years ago) and written by Nick Payne, doesn’t so much flesh out Barnes’s novel as provide us with an outline of its themes. Tony’s prim docility isn’t punctured exactly, but it’s exposed, ever so gently, for what it is: an evasion of life’s passions.
Tony runs a secondhand camera shop in London and lives a pleasingly quiet existence that is upended when, through convoluted circumstances, he is bequeathed a diary written by an idolized old college chum, the brilliant, troubled Adrian (Joe Alwyn), who died young in dire circumstances that are revealed as the film unfolds. Obtaining the diary is another matter: Veronica, the girlfriend with whom Tony dallied in college and has not corresponded with in many decades, has possession of the diary with no intention of giving it up.
Tony and Veronica (played in flashbacks by Billy Howle and Freya Mavor) were a couple in college without ever going beyond the petting stage. When she took up with Adrian, Tony lashed out at them and essentially severed all ties. The consequences of this severance, and the way Tony remembers it, set up the film’s final act, in which he reconnects with the stoically unaccommodating Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) and finds himself not so much disentangling a mystery as sinking into a deeper one.
Without an actor of Broadbent’s poise and humor, “The Sense of an Ending” – which, I must add, is appropriately also the title of a famous work of literary criticism by Frank Kermode about theories of fiction – would be a bit too fusty. Even so, I longed for more disruption of this film’s smooth surfaces. It’s a movie about what seethes beneath the genteel that never quite loses its gentility. It comes closest to simmering in the adult scenes between Tony and Veronica. It is then that Tony’s benignity is exposed as an evasion of truths he can’t bear to face. Up until this point, Tony has been an interestingly uninteresting character, but we can see in these moments how a chasm has opened beneath him, and how, in his own clueless way, he is attempting, even now, to flee from it.
The filmmakers, I think, take too punitive an approach to Tony’s comeuppance. Not only Veronica, played by Rampling with scary stolidity, but also Tony’s ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and very pregnant daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), have a go at him. None of his accusers or chiders come in for anything like the same rough treatment. The film gives them all a free pass despite their subtle, and not-so-subtle, cruelties. Weren’t their memories maybe a bit selective, too? Grade: B (Rated PG-13 for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality, and brief strong language.)