The quietly momentous film The Sense of an Ending began life as a sublimely achy short novel by British writer Julian Barnes (for whom it won the 2011 Man Booker prize) about an apparently unremarkable man with the aptly flavorless name of Tony Webster. Partially retired and on the cusp of old age, Tony receives a blast from his youthful past back in the 1960s that shatters his conveniently doctored memory of a long-buried act of vengeance wreaked on two school friends. How he comes to revise the blameless life he imagines he has lived ever since is his tale to tell, and retell, and tell again until he gets it right. Let's just say that as unreliable narrators go, Tony's a champ — and that the movie might just as well be titled The Humbling.
I'm not sure that Ritesh Batra, who made the sweet but skin-deep The Lunchbox, was the right choice to direct Barnes' intensely inward, rigorously unsentimental book. Indeed it may just be a hard nut for any filmmaker (except maybe Sunset Song's Terence Davies, ace externalizer of the inner life) to crack, given that the action is mostly people talking to and, crucially, past each other, while feeling deeply. Still, with playwright Nick Payne's respectful screenplay, Batra has made an absorbing, if somewhat stolid movie that's saved by a stellar cast led by Jim Broadbent, for whom the part of Tony might have been written — and not just because the actor can do cranky in his sleep. Broadbent's tonal range and his rubbery features lend themselves beautifully to this Everyman, recounting for us an adequate life in which the man has become a stranger to himself, to say nothing of those he purports to love, notably his wryly perceptive ex-wife (the great Harriet Walter) and heavily pregnant daughter (Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery).
Governed by habit and low-level hostility to the many who annoy him with uncalled-for civility and friendliness, Tony's humdrum existence is rudely interrupted by a letter bearing news of a death that leaves him gifted with the diary of a fellow student who had dated Tony's former girl friend, Veronica, and committed suicide soon after. The conduit for the letter turns out to be Veronica herself, played in flashbacks as a girl by Freya Mavor and by Charlotte Rampling with a precise ratio of irony to fury in the present.
In what follows, The Sense of An Ending may be read as a low-key psychological thriller, with Veronica offering disquieting hints about what really transpired between the three. Peppering his narration with increasingly querulous interrogatives — "isn't it?" "doesn't it?" — that solicit our approval, Tony becomes a stalker, turning over stone after stone and, as Veronica drily repeats, still not getting it.
Where Barnes artfully stretches and collapses time to reflect how little memory has in common with chronology, Batra sticks with conventional flashbacks to carry us back to a key weekend that young Tony (Billy Howle) spent at Veronica's posh country seat, and where her twitchy, alluring mother (a miscast, palpably uncomfortable Emily Mortimer) issues a warning that he misconstrues with, he now learns, disastrous results.
After graduation Tony loses touch with his friends and moves on to marry, raise a child after a fashion, divorce — only to learn, in the school of late hard knocks, that he's been a textbook case of arrested development all his life. Without ever overplaying his hand, Broadbent gets to flex all his muscles, his green saucer eyes snapping in self-justifying fury, widening in horror, then filling with grief as he confronts the damage he may have done and sheds what a long-ago history teacher (improbably but decoratively played by Matthew Goode) dubbed, in broader historical context, "the self-delusions of the defeated."
If The Sense of an Ending is an object lesson in the heedless cruelty of the young, it's also, in Broadbent's versatile hands, a moving account of the inner turmoil of a man with little time left to right a wrong. What a pity, then, that Batra and Payne choose to lighten Tony's load by tacking on a redemptive ending. His soft landing may have made all the difference to the movie's prospects for theatrical release. I'm guessing, though, it must have made Barnes wince, if not bang his literary head on his desk outright.