Hot Take: Sometimes you see a movie that was a novel and think, “Maybe this should have stayed a novel.” Meandering and pretentious with a mysterious subplot that isn’t all that mysterious… or interesting.
When you read this review, you’re going to get the sense that I hated The Sense of an Ending. I didn’t. However, it’s so easy to be critical of this highly recognized novel adapted into a largely unseen box office curmudgeon which has grossed under $1 million through two weekends in limited release that this review is going to come across as vitriolic when it’s more of disappointment of a film that felt like it could have been better but settled for being okay.
Jim Broadbent, the 2001 Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actor for Iris, stars as Tony Webster, an older gentleman who receives a letter from the recently deceased mother of Veronica, a girl he dated when he was in school, revealing she had left him something in her will. After some poking around, Tony finds out the possession left to him was a diary of a school friend, Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn), with whom Tony became estranged as Adrian had started dating Veronica right after Tony. We learn all of this through flashbacks as Tony tells his ex-wife (Harriet Walter) in bits and pieces. As Tony’s self-indulgent tale reveals itself, we realize Tony is a little self-involved. Focused on his recently rekindled past, Tony also shares details of the story to his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) and even some old school pals he decides to look up.
The story manipulatively withholds details to create some sort of surprise as Tony eventually meets up with Veronica (played in flashbacks by Freya Mavor and in present day by Charlotte Rampling) and there’s anger there which initially Tony doesn’t understand. She refuses to give him the diary which she claims she burned and, instead, gives Tony a letter which Tony wrote to her and Adrian after he found out about their relationship. It’s a particularly harsh and incendiary letter which leads Tony down a path of feeling rather sorry for himself as his “friend” Adrian had committed suicide soon after he sent the letter. He also seems to pat himself on the back for recognizing what he wrote long ago was rather horrible and wants to make sure Veronica and anyone else he can tell that he did a horrible thing and deeply regrets it.
The story progresses at a pace that is rather jejune. Broadbent’s performance is serviceable and probably the best thing about the film. There’s an occasional glimpse of wry humor that reveals itself like the sun sparingly does on an overly cloudy day. Unfortunately, his character seems to be more enthralled with himself than anyone else appears to be and the film is seemingly less about the unraveling of the mysterious circumstances of him receiving a mention in his ex-girlfriend’s mother’s will and more about the sporadic divulgence that Tony has been quite a self-involved jerk for most of his adult life and, actually, for most of his youthful days, too.
All in all, The Sense of an Ending is a mundane telling of a tale that probably works better as a novel than on the cinema. It also might have worked better as a two-part television event giving the viewer the option to bail at the halfway point or at least time to process and manufacture some interest in the story slowly unraveling before the audience. The deliberateness of the narrative prevents any real interest or intrigue in the overall arch of the plot. There’s even a twist in the tale that feels overly concealed to create more surprise for the viewer but ends up feeling like you’ve been purposely misled to fabricate shock in the reveal. Like most of the movie, it moderately works but, at the same time, feels a little bit hollow.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
- Jim Broadbent
Broadbent plays a curmudgeon rather well. He has very good chemistry with most of the characters in the film and through his performance, you can buy that people wouldn’t completely cut off Tony who is pretty much a jerk.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- You Never Feel Trusted as an Audience
Sometimes films deliberately manipulate the viewer by withholding key pieces of the story. The Sense of an Ending is one of those films. In the end, you get the sense that maybe Tony should have had one of these revelatory moments long before a mention of a diary of an old school acquaintance. But you can’t get there well before this because the storyteller purposely never pulls back the curtain.
- Is This Supposed to be a “Coming of Old Age” Film?
There’s an often paint-by-numbers quality to “Coming of Age” films that The Sense of an Ending seems to mimic. Aided by flashbacks into Tony’s younger days, we get the a similar sense that maybe Tony is maturing before our very eyes much like the main character of a “Coming of Age” film. What you realize that this is a lot easier to buy when the character is 16 and not 61. (They never reveal Tony’s age but he’s definitely over 60.)
- Worst of All, It’s Rather Boring
Despite some intriguing plot twists, the film tells the tale in some of the most boring ways possible and dwells on repetitive imagery to smack the viewer in the face and shouts, “Hey! Don’t forget this!” It undermines the best parts of the film and turns a good story into a mediocre one that isn’t all that interesting to watch unfold.