A couple of weeks ago, I attended a preview screening of the film adaptation of ‘The Sense of an Ending’, based on Julian Barnes’s bestselling novella first published in 2011. The story follows Tony Webster, a divorced, middle-class, semi-retired man living in London where he runs a vintage camera shop. His memories of events in the past concerning his relationship with Veronica Ford at Bristol University and friendship with Adrian Finn in the 1960s and the tragic consequences which followed are somewhat different from how others remember them. When Tony receives a letter from a solicitor regarding a legacy left by Veronica’s late mother, he is forced to re-examine what actually happened so many years ago.
I very much enjoyed The Sense of an Ending when I read it in late 2012 and still think it is one of the best Man Booker Prize winners in recent years. I have to confess that I had forgotten most of the key plot points since I last read it – instead, somewhat ironically, it was the themes, particularly the unreliability of our own memories and the parts we unconsciously suppress, which left the biggest impression on me.
The film directed by Ritesh Batra stars Jim Broadbent as Tony and Charlotte Rampling as Veronica, both very well cast in their roles. There are also some excellent performances from promising actors Billy Howle and Freya Mavor as their younger counterparts in the flashback scenes with further support from Michelle Dockery as Tony’s pregnant daughter Susie and Emily Mortimer as Veronica’s mother Sarah. Those who know London well will enjoy spotting the locations where it was filmed, and I’m sure many book lovers will recognise the café in the Charing Cross branch of Foyles bookshop which provides the setting of a key scene between Tony and Veronica.
Broadbent’s portrayal of Tony leans more towards mild eccentricity and exasperation than outright rudeness and invites more sympathy towards his self-deluded character on screen than Barnes does on the page. As the story is told entirely from Tony’s perspective in the book, it was interesting to see how this translates on screen and how something closer to the truth is eventually revealed through cleverly timed flashbacks revealing both Tony’s memories and an alternative version of events. It shows how certain things that characters have said can be presented and interpreted in entirely different ways.
Inevitably, some other changes have been made. In the book, Tony receives a page of Adrian’s diary but in the film, he receives a letter at a key point in the narrative. Some elements which are more ambiguous on the page are more immediately clear cut on screen and the ending is notably more positive in tone, particularly where Tony’s redemption is concerned. I think this is likely to be the most controversial element of the adaptation and serves as a reminder of just how different even relatively faithful film adaptations can be from their source material. However, at just 150 pages in length, there was little that needed to be skimmed over or left out completely in 108 minutes, allowing more space to explore the characters which is naturally at the heart of the book anyway.
Book-to-screen adaptations can be divisive, particularly for readers who only imagine their favourite novels in a certain way, but I hope that the adaptation of ‘The Sense of an Ending’ will be well received by fans of the book. It is an understated film, sometimes melancholic but quietly powerful in its own way, held together by strong and consistent performances by its leads with some thoughtful observations about memory and nostalgia. I think the film will also resonate with those who haven’t read the book, or have a limited memory of the plot as I did, and will particularly appeal to those who prefer character-driven films.
‘The Sense of an Ending’ is out in UK cinemas today (14th April).