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The Sense of an Ending is a quiet film about the mystery of memory

The movie overcomes a clunky flashback structure with an innovative visual approach to depicting what we remember about the past.

Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent in The Sense of an Ending
Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent in The Sense of an Ending
CBS Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

When we tell our own stories, we’re not telling the facts: We’re recounting our memories. But memories are faulty. And that means we’re all unreliable narrators.

That unreliability drives The Sense of an Ending, which stars Jim Broadbent as an aging curmudgeon named Tony whose past comes roaring back to life. Based on the Booker Prize-winning novel by Julian Barnes, the story follows Tony as he finds himself unexpectedly pursuing closure in a story he thought had ended 40 years prior.

Novelists and filmmakers always seem interested in the slippery nature of memory. Stories from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to Christopher Nolan’s Memento to even Pixar’s Inside Out explore how memories are made and how they’re destroyed. Our perceptions of ourselves depends on what we remember about the past — and what we repress. Which means sometimes, our self-images are faulty.

The Sense of an Ending tackles this phenomenon in a tale that sounds like a detective story, but plays more like a quiet coming of age drama — except the person coming of age is about to be a grandfather. And though the film doesn’t totally cohere, its thoughtful visual style keeps its exploration of time and memory interesting.

The Sense of an Ending centers on a man who’s tried to forget parts of his past

Broadbent’s Tony lives alone, and though he’s mostly retired, he owns a little Leica shop, where he sells and fixes vintage cameras. He’s still friends with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter), and the two of them are preparing to welcome their first grandchild; their daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is about to become a single mother. Tony is amiable enough, but awkward around people — brusque to the postman and helpless around Susie.

Then one day Tony gets a letter from an old acquaintance, Sarah (Emily Mortimer) — a letter that turns out to be posthumous. Sarah has died, and left an item to Tony in her will: a mysterious diary that’s currently in the possession of Sarah’s daughter Veronica (Charlotte Rampling), and which she refuses to send to him.

Tony recounts all this to Margaret over tea, and the movie spins backward into flashbacks to provide the backstory. Veronica was Tony’s first real girlfriend, and when they were young he spent an awkward weekend at her family home, where he met Sarah. (Young Tony and Veronica are played by the excellent Billy Howle and Freya Mavor.) Later, after they parted ways, Veronica began dating Tony’s school chum Adrian (Joe Alwyn), a philosophical soul who died much too young.

Jim Broadbent in The Sense of an Ending
Jim Broadbent in The Sense of an Ending
CBS Films

Desperate to find out who wrote the diary and why Veronica won’t give it up, Tony finally tracks down Veronica, who hasn’t changed much since they were teenagers. And that is when Tony discovers that his memories of the past aren’t all that accurate — and that the truth of what really happened casts his own life in a new light.

The Sense of an Ending overcomes its clunky narrative structure with a good visual sense

Much of The Sense of an Ending takes place in the flashbacks triggered when Tony has tea with Margaret. This is usually a clunky device, and it unsurprisingly feels forced here — you almost expect a dissolve between scenes — though Broadbent and Walter’s rapport is so fun to watch that it almost doesn’t matter.

Much more effective is the film’s visual device: The Sense of an Ending abandons straightforward reminiscence to start mixing the past and the present in subtle ways that help us see Tony’s state of mind as memories resurface, rather than just showing us what actually happened. He finds his 60-something self walking down a hallway at the party where he met Veronica as a teenager. He sees Sarah — who is dead, and if alive would have been near 90 — climbing the stairs at a department store. Pieces of his life and memory return in his dreams, both waking and sleeping.

Jim Broadbent and Harriet Walter in The Sense of an Ending
Jim Broadbent and Harriet Walter in The Sense of an Ending.
CBS Films

This approach helps elevate The Sense of an Ending a bit above its otherwise workmanlike storytelling, which seems, quite obviously, to be derivative of its source material — a book on screen, rather than something more original. Director Ritesh Batra (whose last feature, The Lunchbox, is also a small and lovely love story) is working with material that seems more literary than cinematic, and indeed it is — watching the film, you mostly want to go read Barnes’s book. It’s easy to see how ideas about closing the loop on a narrative and revising one’s image of the past fit more naturally into a novel than a film.

But The Sense of an Ending is a fine and simple bit of filmmaking, even if it’s unlikely to reach the critically acclaimed heights of its source material. The movie is interested in how the passage of time changes both us and what we desire. It’s interested in how memories and stories are passed down from generation to generation. And it posits that the best thing we can do is love each other and try to do our best, and apologize when we don’t. Packaged into a story told sensitively, that’s a lesson worth remembering.

The Sense of an Ending opens in theaters on March 10.