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review

Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent in The Sense of an Ending

In his 2011 Booker Prize-winning novel The Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes relied on that always intriguing literary device, the unreliable narrator. Tony Webster, however, is not unreliable in the manner of Agatha Christie's cunning Dr. Sheppard, withholding crucial information from the reader in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Nor in the manner of Kazuo Ishiguro's delusional Stevens in The Remains of the Day, unable to recognize a fascist when he sees one.

No, the retired middle-class Englishman increasingly obsessed by events of his youth is unreliable in the way we all are, forgetful and self-serving in our recollection of the past. Achieving that effect on the page requires masterful tracts of interior monologue (in a brief novel with only modest amounts of dialogue); onscreen, it mainly requires a masterful performance from veteran British character actor Jim Broadbent.

Walking a fine line between drama and comedy and between an audience's sympathy and its annoyance, Broadbent plays Tony as an impatient and sometimes inept senior who is unapologetically removed from both the contemporary world – he runs a small shop selling rare second-hand cameras – and other people's emotions. Underneath it, he's a decent type who doesn't quite notice how insensitive he may seem to others. Increasingly alone, he is also still loved – or at least kindly tolerated – by his brisk ex-wife (a notably efficient Harriet Walter) and sometimes irritated adult daughter (Michelle Dockery).

His solitary but sufficient existence is interrupted by an odd bequest: An ex-girlfriend's mother, a woman he met only once, has left him £500 (about $825) and a diary that the daughter (Charlotte Rampling) now refuses to hand over. Unravelling this situation takes him back to his university days in the 1960s and his relationship with the mysterious Veronica. After a short and frustrating romance, she left him for his best friend, the philosophically inclined Adrien, who eventually killed himself.

And there, director Ritesh Batra moves us smoothly back into the past: a charming Billy Howle effectively plays a younger, more uncertain yet more joyful Tony ensnared by a woman who mainly puzzles him (Freya Mavor as the young Veronica) and a friend (Joe Alwyn as Adrian) who often intrigues him. Beyond Broadbent's rich portrait of Tony's wide-eyed surprise and bumbling reassessments, Batra has found various deft ways of making Barnes's points about time and memory in both sections of the story – before the present-day Tony eventually persuades the unseen Veronica that they should meet up.

Adapting Barnes's story, screenwriter Nick Payne adds more plot to flesh out a small psychological novel, making some thematically convincing additions and some actual improvements, adjusting some of Veronica's more confusing behaviour. He also provides Batra with a few choice comic moments, including the delicious scene in which Tony discovers Facebook.

But neither writer nor director can make much of the story's clipped denouement, puzzling to some readers of the original novel, resonant to others, but now merely flat. The magnificent Rampling did such a fabulous job detailing her character in 45 Years, another dark English story of seniors revisiting youthful love affairs, but here, when Veronica does finally show up, the actress really doesn't have enough to do.

Batra has drawn delicate performances from his ensemble in this adaptation of what was always an elliptical novel, but as a film, The Sense of an Ending leaves you hungry for something more than just the sense of an ending.

Co-writer and director Jay Baruchel says he wanted to give fans 'something awesome' with the sequel to his comedic hockey film Goon.

The Canadian Press