The Sense of an Ending the Movie

When I first knew that The Sense of an Ending was being adapted into a movie, I thought whoever that took up the project had a tall order. That it’s a Booker Prize winner automatically adds pressure and expectations, but the more important consideration is the nature of the book, introspection saturated with internal dialogues.

The novel is powerful and intense in that, in merely 150 pages, Barnes has dismantled the scaffold of self-knowledge in his protagonist by challenging the accuracy of his memories. The eerie effect is, that can happen to us too. How accurate are our memories of ourselves, of others, of events in our life? It’s crucial because what we remember about them build up the person who we think we are today.

So, who had taken up this difficult task to helm the movie? It’s Ritesh Batra, the Mumbai born, Indian director who brought us the interesting film The Lunchbox (2013). Batra has an excellent cast to work with, that should have made his job a bit easier. But one can see he follow the script pretty closely and that’s what made me wish there could be more stylistic touch. Similarly, the screenplay by Nick Payne could have been spiced up a bit. However, its being overall loyal to Barnes’s novel, except a few addons, may have cleared up some ambiguity for the reader.

The Sense of an Ending

In his old age, Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) received a registered letter notifying him of a small inheritance from someone he had known way back in his university days. The money isn’t the important thing, it’s the diary that is supposed to go with it that opens up a door to his past. And so begins the story. Tony has to rethink everything about himself (younger played by Billy Howle), his first love Veronica Ford (younger played by Freya Mavor), Veronica’s family, in particular his mother Sarah (Emily Mortimer), and his school friends Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn, who plays Billy Lyn in Ang Lee’s 2016 movie).

There are hits and misses in this adaptation. Broadbent delivers a solid performance as the clueless Tony Webster, a man who has lived all his life lacking the lucidity of seeing himself and others in the proper light, or is it selective memory? The little bit of addon is good, letting Tony set up an old camera shop to get him out of bed everyday. It’s also a good link because when he first met Veronica, she was toying with one, and he had received one from her as a gift as well. Herein lies the linkage of the object with the distant past.

Tony has his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walters) to thank, for she humours him by meeting him time and again just to listen. She may be doubting what Tony is telling her, but she is patient and wait for him to slowly rediscover himself. That’s what a good listener does, isn’t it, she helps you question yourself.

Adding the plotline of Tony’s daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) giving birth to a baby is effective. Those who miss Downton Abbey would be glad to see Mary Crawley again, in a new role. But the real effect here is that her giving birth to a newborn son leads me to appreciate the title of the book, something that I did not quite get when I was reading. I wondered about the relevance of the book title when I was reading it. The movie’s last scene clears this up for me. After all these years of misinformed self-knowledge, Tony finally comes to the end of a chapter in his old age, still not too late. With the renewed relationship with his ex Margaret, and a new grandchild, Tony is ready to call an end to a clueless life and start anew. Once more, with feeling.

The weakest link I feel is with the elderly Veronica character played by Charlotte Rampling. It’s a missed opportunity for the director to draw out more from this veteran actor. Unlike in the book, which depicts an absolutely frustated Veronica, possibly traumatized by what had happened to her in life, finding Tony not understanding a bit about the past. “You just don’t get it, do you?” Exasperated, she has said this several times in the book, if my memory serves me correctly.

So here in the movie, the most crucial scenes ought to be Tony’s meeting with the older Veronica for the first time after all those decades and Veronica seeing Tony still oblivious to what had happened. But no, we see an utterly aloof Veronica, too calm for those tense cinematic moments. “You just don’t get it, do you?” has not been said even once, if my memory serves me correctly.

And the most crucial line in the pub when Tony finds out the truth, it ought to be the climax but the scene is so understated that any built up has been eroded. Now he gets it, and what reaction does he show at the moment and afterwards? I feel it’s the director’s job to augment the moment, and let it ripple into the next sequences. I’m sure the cast can easily oblige. Just for the sake of eliciting more emotional engagement from the viewers. I remember how sensational it felt when I came to that part in the book.

Overall, it’s a pleasure watching these veteran actors in the same production. Together with the above-mentioned cast members, there are also Matthew Goode, the history teacher, but not in a scene with Michelle Docerty, and Merchant Ivory star James Wilby playing the small role of Veronica’s father.

That it is shot on location in London, especially watching Tony meet Veronica again on “the wobbly bridge” leading to Tate Modern is particularly poignant in light of recent events. Overall, a watchable adaptation to go with the book.

~ ~ ~ Ripples


Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

The Sense of an Ending Book Review

The Lunchbox Movie Review

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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

19 thoughts on “The Sense of an Ending the Movie”

  1. It’s been a while since I read the book so I don’t remember all the nuances, but at your title, I thought the same — that it’d be certainly a challenge to translate to film. I appreciate your detailing your expectations and the performance of the various characters.


    1. nikkipolani,

      I read the book in 2011 so before I watched the movie I listened to the audiobook to refresh my memory. I enjoy both book and movie, but the book seems to be able to elicit more emotional engagement for me. The film is good for visual enjoyment.


    1. Cathy,

      Yes, I always wonder how filmmakers and producers make their selections. That’s why I’m intrigued about the book to film process. I think you’ll enjoy the movie.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Looks like a good book and a movie I would love. Memories are such strange things and I’ve found as the years go by my perspective about people and events in my past frequently changes. One movie that highlighted that for me was “On Golden Pond.” The first time I watched it I was totally sympathetic to the daughter, and the second time I watched it, many years later, I couldn’t imagine how I felt that way, and my sympathy went to her parents. I’m looking forward to seeing (or reading) “The Sense of an Ending” now.


    1. Barbara,

      You’ve brought out a good point. We do change our perspective on things, books and movies. That’s why I like to reread and rewatch them after a while, never know what I’d think the next time around. I think you’ll enjoy both book and film. The book is only about 150 pages, it’ll take you no time. But the movie may not be around long so catch it if you can. 🙂


  3. Thank you for your wonderful post about the movie (“the sense of an ending”) based on the novel. Now I must see it … but your write up about some of the director’s short comings (in getting more from this golden cast) will help me be more sensitive and aware during the story. You are a deep ponderer of human behaviors and I love that! Always enjoy your “take” on things.


    1. Heather,

      Thanks for being so generous with me. And yes, I’d say go for both the book and the movie. But as you’ll find, there’s a difference in intensity. It’s entertaining just to go through both back to back. As always, I like to go for the book first. But not sure if the movie will stay in theatres long though.


  4. I was wondering how this might work as a movie and was worried since I really enjoyed the book. Sounds like it isn’t perfect but still pretty good. I can live with that. 🙂


  5. What a cast! I haven’t read the book and maybe that is a good thing. Maybe not, in this case. It’s one of those things I doubt will ever come her but I will hope, because if you put Harriet Walter, Michele Dockery, Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling on the same screen, it seems quite likely I’d like it!


    1. Jeanie,

      You’ll love seeing them all in one movie. Except for the flaws I mentioned, it’s something you’ll enjoy. Do read the book, those 150 pages speak volumes.


  6. One of my favorite books – I recall being blown away by it. I, too, wondered how such an inner-monologue book would translate to the screen and that question only makes me want to see it all the more.


    1. Care,

      While the movie is not stellar, it’s a good compendium if you will to go with the book although as you must have guessed, it’s not as intense. And since you’ve already read the book, I’m afraid this won’t blow you away. 😉


  7. Memory intrigues me, particularly since so many of mine from childhood are so vivid, and a few even are verified. But as my tale of my prison-bound Aunt T made clear, what we remember and what was reality can vary widely. It’s the old facts-and-truth conundrum that Faulkner explored so thoroughly.

    One of the truths of life surely is that beginnings and endings are continually happening. Sometimes, we don’t know even know that a transition is taking place until we’re confronted with a new reality. It sounds as though both book and film do a good job of exploring that. I’ve put the book on my list, with thanks.


    1. Linda,

      Yes, from your autobiographical posts, you certainly are one detailed and lucid historian. If you have a chance, do seek out this movie. But as always, I think reading the book first is better. It’s only 150 pages, and it’s an exemplar of succinct writing.


  8. The “You just don’t get it” theme really irritated several members of my book group! I wondered how the flashbacks would work, sometimes it can seem clumsy in film where it was seamless in a book, but I can see how this great cast might pull it off.


  9. Excellent review thank you. While much is made of the film’s lineage to the novel, the novel’s influence by Prof Frank Kermode’s seminal book of that name in 1967 is ignored. It explains the role of storytelling in making sense of our lives and helps to de-code this particular story. The film can be read in many ways, but makes most sense via a philosophical lens.


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