The Sense Of An Ending (15)

THE initial proposition of Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize-winning novel is that it doesn’t take old age for our memories to start failing; we edit the record of our lives as we go – embellishing, cutting the bits that hurt too much, smoothing over regrettable words or deeds; we tell our own story, with varying degrees of self-delusion. So that when the past, what actually happened, reasserts itself, it can be a bit of a shock.

In the film adaptation, Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a sixty-something in comfortable, complacent, curmudgeonly semi-retirement. He’s on good terms with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery). He lives alone in a lovely house in South London and occasionally opens his camera repair shop, only to be rude to the customers. He likes to write letters to the newspaper.

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Tony is settling down for the final stretch, not unhappy with his lot. But then he receives a solicitor’s letter, informing him that he’s been left £500 in the will of an unlikely benefactor, the mother of a girlfriend from his university days, Veronica. Along with the cash is a letter and the promise of another item, which is mysteriously unattached.

The solicitor tells him that said item is a diary, though whose is not known. At first the pedantic Tony merely wants what is now deemed to be his. But pursuit of the diary involves reacquainting with Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) for the first time in 40 years, and a dip back into a past that involves their unsuccessful relationship, his trio of schoolboy friends, especially best friend Adrian Finn, and the misdeeds and tragedy that pulled them all apart.

Barnes’s slim novel is in two halves – first involving Tony’s school and university days, followed by his older self being confronted by events and actions he’d long buried, along with some revelations. As it’s written in the first person of Tony’s unreliable narrator, the reader generally becomes informed of the truth incrementally, as Tony faces it himself.

The film, adapted by playwright Nick Payne and directed by Ritresh Batra, keeps the intention and spirit of the book, while changing its structure, now moving seamlessly between past and present. At times a single image of the past jolts the present day – a memory rushing into the adult Tony’s mind; at others, Broadbent walks through the scenes of his character’s past, a lovely way of showing memory in action.

The result is a drama about memory, nostalgia, regret and the reckless cruelty of youth, with a dash of mystery, told through the reawakening from decades of self-absorption of an elderly gent who really does need a good shake. It’s gentler, less downbeat than the book, but equally affecting, as its themes unavoidably elicit our recognition, perhaps even our own introspection.

Batra’s earlier film was the beautiful, Mumbai-set romantic comedy The Lunchbox. Everything about his new one – writing, acting, editing, direction – is economical and understated. Broadbent can play this kind of likeable curmudgeon in his sleep; that said, it takes skill to maintain our sympathy for a man whose manners are appalling and who displays a remarkable lack of sensitivity and understanding.

The female characters all have greater substance than this errant male and the actresses playing them are superb: Walter as the long-suffering but sharp-witted ex; Rampling her usual miraculous self, expressing just with her eyes all of the quality and pain of a woman Tony has greatly maligned and never understood; and Emily Mortimer a whirlwind of eccentric sex appeal and loneliness as Veronica’s mother, who holds the key to Tony’s belated coming of age.

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