Time has a way of changing the way we remember past events. With distance, we tend to forget details, occasionally making up new facts as bits of shorthand for specifics change meaning. Depending on the person and the events in question, we may even be blind to reality, unable to recognize what we’ve actually done. That lack of perspective is what informs the story of The Sense of an Ending, a film that unfortunately never quite sells the story its wanting to tell.
Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is a semi-retired owner of a camera store who receives a letter one day notifying him that he’s been willed the diary of a friend from his youth named Adrian (Joe Alwyn) by the recently deceased mother of his ex-girlfriend from that time, Veronica (Freya Mavor in the past, Charlotte Rampling in the present). Veronica refuses to give him the diary, though, and as Tony tries to understand why, he tells stories from his past with his ex-wife (Harriet Walter), his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery), and some old friends from his school days. Many of the stories he tells revolve around the friendship between young Tony (Billy Howle) and Adrian, which eventually turned into a love triangle involving Veronica.
One of the film’s biggest problems is something that’s honestly hard to consider a flaw: Tony’s an egotistical jerk, which is hard to nail down because Jim Broadbent’s performance doesn’t inherently suggest that he’s a jerk. Broadbent’s a terrific actor, but there’s a warmth to his performance that makes it hard to realize that he’s just not a good person. That doesn’t have to be a problem, and in a better film it could actually be an asset.
But the reason it doesn’t is tied into an even bigger problem for the film: from the beginning of the film, it’s testing the patience of its viewers on a constant basis. For example, when Tony receives the letter in the beginning of the film, it’s as he’s leaving his house. He pockets the letter, goes to his shop, pulls it out at some point to open it…and stops when a customer comes knocking. He only reads the letter much later in the day, and even then, it takes a few more scenes for the viewer to find out what’s actually in the letter. That sense of delayed gratification rears its ugly head again and again, which makes the entirety of the film drag.
The Sense of an Ending was adapted from a novel that received much more acclaim. Among the shifts between the novel and the film: in the novel, Tony’s the narrator of the film, and he’s unreliable as a narrator. In the film, they try to approximate that by having Tony tell his friends stories as the film goes into flashback mode. While the intent is there, the effect isn’t quite the same. It’s a shame, because the cast of this film is certainly strong, and the premise is an intriguing one. But the film’s attempts to be mysterious make the whole story overblown.