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'Sense Of An Ending' Lacks The Punch Of The Prize-Winning Novel It's Based On


This is FRESH AIR. A prize-winning novel by Julian Barnes, "The Sense Of An Ending," has been made into a movie starring Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling and Michelle Dockery. The book won The Man Booker Prize in 2011. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: In "The Sense Of An Ending," Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, an emotionally shut down older man who gradually learns that the events of his past are not as he remembers them. In his 20s, something huge happened to close friends that he missed completely, and something he did at that time he has thoroughly repressed. As the film begins, Tony receives a letter from the mother of an old girlfriend - part of the mother's will. She left him a diary that's about to explode the foundation of his life.

Julian Barnes' 2011 novel is told from Tony's point of view, and the first section in which the character speaks of his schooldays is breezy and dispassionate, almost dismissive of his emotions as a young man. Tony had a friend in secondary school named Adrian whom he idolized for Adrian's serious affect and blunt, modernist ideas, like pooh-poohing historians need to ascribe responsibility when it's impossible to know for certain why anything happens. Tony goes on to say casually that Adrian committed suicide and that Tony got older and married and divorced and doesn't much think of the past. But there turns out to be huge gaps in his story.

In 2011, I blew through Barnes' book. It's short, and the writing is purposefully plain, and when I got to the end, I was so shattered that I immediately reread it to understand what had hit me, paying special attention to a few middle pages loaded with significance. The structure is a bit gimmicky, like Ian McEwan's "Atonement." But like "Atonement," it transcends its plot. It forces us to think about how we frame and even rewrite our own lives. I loved it. But the movie of "The Sense Of An Ending" is a nonevent. It's directed by Ritesh Batra who made a heartwarming film called "The Lunchbox." In this case, his genial humanistic tone softens the tragedy.

Nick Payne's screenplay is loaded with signposts, like replaying Adrian's contention in history class, that no one knows for certain why things happen. Payne doesn't just tell the story. He pre-chews (ph) it and feeds it to us as if we're infants. Now, the supposed loner Tony spends most of his time onscreen talking it all through with Harriet Walter as his ex-wife and Michelle Dockery as his very pregnant daughter. Broadbent is delightful, as always, but his bright blue eyes are so childlike and open to the world that you can't believe he'd have spent half a century so buttoned up. The only edge in "The Sense Of An Ending" comes from Charlotte Rampling, who plays the ex-girlfriend Veronica as an older woman. When she and Tony meet in a cafe, ostensibly so he can retrieve the diary that her mother left him, the hate just pours out of her.


JIM BROADBENT: (As Tony Webster) I was sorry to hear about your mother, Veronica.

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: (As Veronica Ford) Yes.

BROADBENT: (As Tony Webster) As you're no doubt aware, it appears that your mother left something to me in her will. And when I spoke with your mother's solicitor, I was told that the item that is being left to me was a diary written by Adrian.

RAMPLING: (As Veronica Ford) I don't have the diary.

BROADBENT: (As Tony Webster) Excuse me.

RAMPLING: (As Veronica Ford) I burnt it.

BROADBENT: (As Tony Webster) But it belongs to me. I at least have the right to know what is in it.

RAMPLING: (As Veronica Ford) Legally, yes; morally, no.

EDELSTEIN: What's in that diary? I won't spoil anything, but what happened in the past is very convoluted. The point is that Tony remembers little and has processed less. Some of what he remembers, we see in flashbacks where his younger self is played by Billy Howle who's like a moodier Eddie Redmayne. Freya Mavor as magnetic as the young Veronica, and Emily Mortimer has some nice moments as Veronica's flirty mother. But those scenes go by too quickly, and then we're back with Jim Broadbent as he mulls over his life on the way to becoming a better man.

"The Sense Of An Ending" works in its teeny way, like a well-made play. But while the climactic revelations are very sad, they don't wound. The film's trajectory is hopeful. Let's be nicer to the people around us. Let's be more present for our family - a good message but a world away from the mystery and tragedy that Julian Barnes evokes in his slim but indelible novel.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, addictive technology, from our smartphones to immersive online games. We'll talk with Adam Alter, author of the new book "Irresistible," about how our digital devices are contributing to the rise of behavioral addictions, such as compulsive video game playing and online shopping. Join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. The engineer today is Adam Stanishevsky (ph) with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.
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