Review published on April 7, 2017.
Having read the book some years ago, re-reading The Sense of An Ending ahead of seeing the film became an exercise in one of the key themes of the novel – memory. What did I remember about it? That it was short – a novella really. That it was surprisingly fast-paced for an introspective first person narrative – I almost finished it in one sitting, reluctant to put it down (Julian Barnes himself describes it as a psychological thriller, in the most literal sense of the term). That the narrator was a selfish, pedantic, old fool – yes, that was my overriding impression. All these things stayed true after my second reading…but it was the details I was hazy on. The girlfriend…yes, she was important, but did she break things off with him, or he with her? Wasn’t there a friend? A few friends? And a letter – or was it a diary? Suddenly I wasn’t completely sure but somebody had done something wrong and hadn’t it somehow resulted in a terrible tragedy that only became apparent to the narrator in his later years? Had I been asked to describe the plot I would probably have glibly filled in some of the gaps, making someone a hero and some other a villain. Because that’s what we ask of our novels, isn’t it?
Julian Barnes’ novel managed to grip me just as readily the second time round, when the narrator’s vague recollections – the story he has told himself about a youthful indiscretion – turn to horror as he realises what he may have been responsible for many, many years ago. It is an intriguing exploration of something we all must do in order to continue comfortably with our lives. In setting aside our wrongdoings, justifying them in retrospect as the only possible course of action, we shrug off the guilt and responsibility and determine never to go back. In his retirement Tony Webster is pulled back into his past and forced to confront his own hasty actions in a kind of Dickensian revisiting when he is advised that a sum of money and a diary have been left to him by his ex-girlfriend’s mother. To my mind however, it is not simply a matter of denial but more a question of how far he could possibly have foreseen the potential consequences of his actions and that is something no two people will entirely agree on, making this novel ideal reading group fodder.
Having now seen the film version I can confirm that I will be more confused than ever when it comes to describing exactly what happened – as it is more of an interpretation than a faithful adaptation. Director Ritesh Batra and screenwriter Nick Payne appear to have taken all the elements of the book, thrown them in the air and put them together slightly differently, which is kind of the point of the novel really. I found myself thinking, ‘oh yes, that happened in the book – but not quite like that, and not then’, very much like when two people who haven’t seen each other for a long time get together and remember the same event slightly, but crucially, differently. There is a scene in the film that illustrates this perfectly, when Tony meets up with his old school friends to discuss what he remembers of a certain time. He insists his then girlfriend couldn’t possibly have met a mutual friend of theirs but yes she did, his friends say, we were there – don’t you remember? He can’t deny the remembered, and unemotional, evidence of them both and is forced into realising that he has buried it in his subconscious and erased it from his story. This scene doesn’t appear in the book as it isn’t required to be so explicit – the same effect is presented, albeit in a different way.
How you react to this ‘same but different’ approach will depend on your attachment to the original story. If, as I believe Julian Barnes intended, you can accept that your own recollection or impression of the book is as valid as anyone else’s, including that of a filmmaker then you should find watching it an exercise in point of view. It is very British in its understatement and very attached to place and time, which were both realised in a brilliantly subtle way. I really enjoyed the sense of distance and of everyday life that the film gave me, and which the book didn’t. Who else could have played Tony Webster – Jim Broadbent was perfect – but particularly impressive were Billy Howle and Freya Mavor who played the young Tony and Veronica. Flashing back to the 60s with them illuminated the folly of youth which the novel merely ruminates on. Laugh out loud moments were provided via the interplay of Tony and his ex-wife, ably played by Harriet Walter, and Charlotte Rampling gave a moving if less aggressive portrayal of Veronica in the present than was my impression from the novel.
I suspect that my interest and enjoyment in the film was enhanced by having read the book and I would recommend reading it first – it won’t take you long! – as the comparison between the two is really quite fascinating, whether or not you agree with the director’s decisions, or indeed with the novelist’s presentation of his main character.
Mel Mitchell, 4*
The Sense of an Ending is out in UK cinemas 14 April
The film follows Tony Webster, divorced and retired, who leads a reclusive and relatively quiet life. One day, he learns that the mother of his university girlfriend, Veronica, left in her will a diary kept by his best friend, who dated Veronica after she and Tony parted ways. Tony’s quest to recover the diary, now in Veronica’s possession, forces him to revisit his flawed recollections of his friends and of his younger self. As he digs deeper into his past, it all starts to come back; the first love, the broken heart, the deceit, the regrets, the guilt… Can Tony bear to face the truth and take responsibility for the devastating consequences of actions he took so long ago?
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Freya Mavor, Billy Howle and Joe Alwyn
Director: Ritesh Batra
Screenplay: Nick Payne