Director: Ritesh Batra
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Billy Howle, Freya Mavor
I haven’t read Julian Barnes’ Booker winning novel, but there’s a moment in Ritesh Batra’s film adaptation that seems destined to realize its significance only on screen. A heavily pregnant young lady, deep in labour on the hospital bed, wants to be distracted from her pain. Her old father is by her side as usual, but looks all at sea, wondering how to calm her down. She orders him to just tell her about his day. She expects to hear the same old same-old wryness about his mundane retired-divorcee routine.
Instead he uncharacteristically ends up expressing a truckload of pent-up anxiety about his current predicament, which is something she had no prior inkling about. She looks at him, bemused, as he blurts it all out like a child unable to fathom the consequences of adulthood: a mysterious letter from his past, his attempts to re-establish contact with an ex-girlfriend named Veronica, her contempt for him even today, memories of his suicidal best friend – a nurse enters to interrupt his ramble. His face remains one big worried question mark.
“Here, hold my hand,” the daughter urges, recognizing that she must take on the role of the distractor now. She looks surprised, but also a little relieved – relieved that there’s more to her father than being the monotonous and stubbornly British loner. He squeezes her fingers hard, suddenly feeling like the most pregnant person in the room.
Though I suspect that if he were to recollect the mood of this scene later in life, it’d be that of a proud father supporting his little girl at her most vulnerable. And perhaps she’d let it be that way.
The Sense of an Ending is essentially a story about the language of storytelling. It isn’t so much about a midlife crisis as it is about a man stuck between – and forced to acknowledge – these two different versions of his own sprawling narrative. The clear-mindedness of time has brought about Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) to reexamine certain suppressed memories, and gradually regret his own historical adaptation of boyhood. When he receives a letter left to him in a will by Veronica’s late mother (a coquette-ish Emily Mortimer), he seems to be startled at how differently he remembers that seminal 1960s phase – like a cinema enthusiast suddenly feeling drastically emotional about a film he disliked decades ago.
It takes a while to dawn upon old Tony that his reading of those situations were biased to begin with, because flashbacks can only depict the perspective and presence of the narrator. The gaps in between are what define the recurring dreams – or nightmares – he keeps getting.
Batra designs Tony’s history like an upper-lipped aristocratic British drama, too, in stark contrast to the contemporary soundlessness of modern-day London. Max Richter’s lilting score sounds out this portion and lends it an Atonement kind of intrigue – one that is bound to culminate in string-heavy rushes of dramatic revelation. Tony wonders why he isn’t as bitter as he should be, and why there’s this urge to revisit a forbidden time, almost as if he were always subconsciously aware of the missing pieces he had chosen to bury back then.
Every time he narrates fleeting passages of that time – his early courtship with Veronica, their failing relationship, his visit to her family home and her seductive mother, his English Literature classes, his enigmatic new best friend in college, the distastefulness of a love triangle – it isn’t through the sobering prism of hindsight. It takes a while to dawn upon old Tony that his reading of those situations were biased to begin with, because flashbacks can only depict the perspective and presence of the narrator. The gaps in between are what define the recurring dreams – or nightmares – he keeps getting.
We all do that. We often alter and edit out the littler things of our own history to suit the emotions we want to experience in order to survive. It’s the only way we can control our personal film to sense the kind of an ending we feel it deserves. But in most cases, the line is thin between self-preservation and self-delusion.
For instance, Batra opens the film establishing Tony’s rather grumpy-Londoner existence: he lives by the clock, runs a tiny antique camera store, ignores the mailman, avoids excess human interaction and seems to be the one more hard off after a broken marriage. It’s all very amiable with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter), but it’s obvious that somewhere deep inside Tony believes he is the victim. He has believed it for years, even before Margaret ever entered his life. Perhaps the reason he confides in her so explicitly, under the garb of friendliness, is because he wants her to be jealous like he might have once been, and like he currently is about Veronica’s old misgivings. He’s still that guy.
Broadbent is an expert at employing that classic English goodness-despite-hurt gait – an expression designed to perhaps guilt onlookers into believing that he is the magnanimous one. It slowly becomes clear, as he tracks down and virtually stalks Veronica (a hypnotic Charlotte Rampling in a 45 Years space), that there’s still a desperate, selfish boyishness about him – a trait rarely visible in advanced, timeworn protagonists these days. Batra transitions between the two time periods in a way that informs our understanding of Tony’s current temperament even as it unfurls. We don’t know much about the life he led after Veronica, but I can guess – from the way his wife and daughter interact with him – that it’s perhaps his inherent lack of maturity that led to a separation. All three family members live apart, and one can also assume that his daughter might have subconsciously rebelled against her parent’s split by becoming a single mother.
There are old memories and new ones, sometimes re-lapping, often deliberately vague and misleading, making for the kind of sensory chaotic palette only the inevitability of closure can justify. Though young Tony (Billy Howle) initially seems impulsive and correct and ambitious, eons apart from the passive adult version, at some point these personalities begin to converge. At that point, one man is constantly trying to compensate for not growing into another.
I loved the restrained grammar of this film. I liked that Tony’s account wasn’t entirely reliable or linear, forcing me to join the dots and be confounded by its hidden notes – like making a story while telling it. It made me feel as if I were reacting to my own memories of someone else’s life, with the same volatile feelings of curiosity and muted shamelessness.
In both of Batra’s films so far, the written word – letters in each case – has served as the device that kick-starts an emotionally detached loner’s belated coming of age. Maybe Bandra’s Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan, in The Lunchbox) would evolve into Lambeth’s Tony Webster, and a misplaced letter forces him to recognize the true outcome of that sweet old-school exchange with a housewife (Nimrat Kaur) all those years ago. Perhaps both of them would get along famously with Goa’s Ferdie Pinto (Naseeruddin Shah, in Finding Fanny) while criticizing the shapelessness of tragedy and vagaries of the postal system.
Either way, divorced or widowed, mechanical or childish, the old beans always discover the different between loneliness and being alone. And nothing, except their sense of a concrete ending, changes on the way.