Despite a title that suggests impending resolution, The Sense Of An Ending starts testing the viewer’s patience—very much by design—almost immediately. Early in the film, a semi-retired camera-store owner named Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) receives a registered letter as he’s leaving his house. Tony sticks the letter in his pocket without opening it, leaving us to wonder what it contains. A bit later, in his shop, he remembers the letter, pulls it out, starts to open it… but a customer knocks on the door, and Tony sets the letter aside. Even when he does finally read the thing, later still, we get only a split-second look at the contents, with no voice-over or explanation. What’s in the damn letter already?! The question finally gets answered shortly thereafter, but that revelation only serves to introduce further mysteries. Indeed, the entire movie consists of this same delayed-gratification tactic, as significant events from Tony’s past are first teased and then revealed a bit at a time, via numerous flashbacks. A little of that sort of thing can be invigorating. Push it too far, however, and it starts to feel like a pointless game of narrative Keep Away.
That’s a shame, because Broadbent gives a terrific performance in the central role. Self-absorption is a trait that’s hard to convey without becoming overly broad, but Broadbent, defying his surname, makes Tony profoundly uninterested in most other people without emptying him of all compassion or empathy. Consequently, it takes a while to recognize that The Sense Of An Ending is essentially a portrait of a jerk. The story, as it slowly unfolds—or, more accurately, is unearthed—concerns an item that’s been willed to Tony by the recently deceased mother of a long-ago ex-girlfriend, Veronica (played in flashback by Freya Mavor and in the present day by Charlotte Rampling). Veronica refuses to surrender the item, however, and Tony’s efforts to secure it lead him to relate the relevant buried details to his ex-wife (Harriet Walter), his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery), and some old school chums. Much of this intrigue involves a particularly close friendship between the younger Tony (played by Billy Howle) and a sensitive boy named Adrian (Joe Alwyn), which develops into a love triangle with Veronica, and perhaps into more.
The Sense Of An Ending very likely works better in its original form, as an award-winning novel (2011 Man Booker Prize) written by Julian Barnes. For one thing, the book employs Tony as a first-person narrator—and a rather unreliable one, by all reports. Director Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), working from a script by playwright Nick Payne, does his best to approximate this by linking most of the flashbacks to scenes in which Tony is telling someone what had happened many years earlier. The effect isn’t quite the same, though, minus Tony’s internal monologue; his evasions and misrepresentations inevitably come across on screen more like a structural gimmick than like a character flaw, though it’s clearly the latter that’s intended. Plus, Batra undermines his own efforts by repeatedly lingering on images that he wants us to remember, signaling their importance when they’re still meant to seem innocuous. (There’s also a big twist that’ll be guessed well in advance by anyone familiar with Ebert’s Law Of Economy Of Characters.) Hype can lead to disappointment. Sometimes, it’s better to just show what’s in the envelope right away.