Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is a largely retired man in his late sixties who runs a vintage camera shop in his spare time, which he has quite a bit of as he winds down his life. But maybe there are things from his past that will prevent him relaxing into old age, as while his daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is in the late stages of her pregnancy and that should be taking up more of his time, especially when the baby arrives, something arrives in the mail that makes him pause. It is a letter from a solicitor telling him he is due to receive a certain item from the estate of a man he once knew when he was at university, but does not say what it is, and this dredges up memories of Tony's first true love, Veronica: has she done him wrong after all these years?
Tony has not seen Veronica since they were in their early twenties, you see, and he feels she left him in the lurch, but has not allowed this to ruin his life or anything for he made a decent try at another romance and eventually married Margaret (Harriet Walter). Fair enough, that relationship ended in divorce, but they are still on speaking terms and now get along better with one another than they did when they were wed, yet this letter has left Tony with a ghost from his past he believed he had laid to rest, and once again the old saying about you thinking you were done with the past but the past was not done with you raised its head to inform the plot of this adaptation of Julian Barnes' Booker Prize-winning novel.
That book was a first-person work featuring an unreliable narrator, which is a tricky effort to translate to the big screen, and there were fans of the source who were not convinced director Ritesh Batra had succeeded in capturing the particular flavour of the writing. If you had not read it, and were none the wiser, you might latch on to the fact that the flashbacks to Tony's university and school years were not entirely accurate and indeed were being very selective in what they chose to recall, leaving gaps in the narrative that were not filled in even as the end credits rolled. Then again, you may be frustrated that it was not all wrapped up with a bow, as ambiguity does not always play too well in the cinema.
Not that every film had to spell everything out, but Batra and his screenwriter Nick Payne sought to make a virtue of deploying their protagonist's uncertainty and increasingly punctured belief in his own correctness. When we first meet Tony, he comes across as a set in his ways and confident in his conservative worldview, able to look back on his life with the satisfaction that he never did anything very wrong, puttered along without making any unnecessary waves, didn't upset any applecarts and if he did not suffer too many fools, that was nothing to get het up about. But this letter, and his subsequent investigations, lead him into darker realms where what appeared to be a glancing association with Veronica's family is revealed as something deeper that he is frustratingly unable to grasp: he thinks he gets it, but does he really?
Is he in fact responsible for terrible consequences in other people's lives that the way in which he comes to terms with himself by the story's close does not erase from the consciences of those others? From starting off like a terribly middle class, safe little domestic mystery with lightly humorous character bits, we slowly twigged that something really awful had occurred, and if we were still not given the whole picture by the close we could discern how selective Tony was in his self-image. The cast bringing this to life were both much the faces you would expect and more than up to the challenge; Charlotte Rampling was Sphinx-like in her regard as the older Veronica (Freya Mavor played her in the flashbacks), a dab hand at this sort of work after her turn in the not dissimilar 45 Years not long before this, and needless to say Broadbent essayed the lead as to the manor born, you could not have asked for a better star. Though The Sense of an Ending took its own sweet time in warming up, it was worth the wait for the unanticipated assessment of the viewer and what they should be guilty about it elicited, uneasy as that was. Music by Max Richter.
[Studio Canal's Blu-ray has as extras a billion interviews and a brief bit about what you would say to your 21-year-old self.]