“The Sense of an Ending” hands Jim Broadbent an opportunity to do some of the most intricately naturalistic acting of his distinguished career, and for that reason it’s practically worth seeing, even though his character’s journey is not interesting enough for an entire movie.
The Oscar winner plays Tony Webster, a semiretired shop owner who seems content with his quiet life until a thunderbolt from his past in the form of a deceased friend’s diary raises questions about his memories of a long-lost love from his school days.
Filmmaker Ritesh Batra and screenwriter Nick Payne, adapting a 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning Julian Barnes novel, handle the story with great restraint, weaving in flashbacks in a structure that becomes increasingly more complicated, as Tony finds himself consumed by doubt over this fundamental experience from long ago.
Broadbent treats this everyday person and his internal experiences with a degree of pathos that one expects out of a character from Shakespeare, not a modern-day divorced Briton drifting through London, lost in thought. Every moment is infused with great depth of feeling, a tangible sense of being lonely and haunted.
The picture is augmented with an impressive cast of first-rate actors, from Harriet Walter as Tony’s ex-wife Margaret, to Michelle Dockery as their daughter Susie and Charlotte Rampling and Emily Mortimer as key figures from Tony’s past. Everything about the production is first-rate, understated and sensitive, and there’s something refreshing about seeing so many distinguished performers disappear into playing figures that are so fundamentally ordinary in one sense, and yet imbued with consequence in another.
There’s an essential quality missing in “The Sense of an Ending,” though, whether it’s the sort of scene that can shake up a movie and elevate it to a higher dramatic plane, or an overarching atmospheric or stylistic approach providing a context that adds something extra to a story that’s ultimately too abstract and slight to sustain itself.