A couple years back, festival audiences fell in love with Indian director Ritesh Batra’s genuine gem of a debut, “The Lunchbox,” in which an accountant on the brink of retirement exchanges intimate notes with the complete stranger who has been cooking for him each day. That low-key treasure displayed Batra’s unique touch for the subtle sense of longing and mystery that can haunt men of a certain age, and proved to be an ideal precursor to the director’s first English-language film, “The Sense of an Ending,” a well-acted, if somewhat trickier dish to digest, focusing on a British divorcé’s futile search for closure to a long-ago relationship.
As source material goes, “The Sense of an Ending” is rather more literary, adapted from Julian Barnes’ 2011 novel by playwright Nick Payne, and one can feel the ideas knocking about behind the deceptively simple-looking facades of its characters. Fusty curmudgeon Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) appears content to have traded his ambitions as a poet for a life spent tending a tiny vintage camera shop. It was an early girlfriend, Veronica (Freya Mavor), who gave Tony his first Leica camera, though the humiliation of losing her to an old schoolmate also seems to have shaped his younger self (played by Billy Howle). But whose love was Tony more devastated to lose: hers or the golden boy they both admired?
“The Sense of an Ending” wallows in such ambiguities for much of its running time, even as it comes straight out and states its thesis early on, when Adrian (“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” star Joe Alwyn) recites in class: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” Adrian claims to be quoting a scholar named Patrick Lagrange to explain why he considers it futile to ascribe responsibility to a fellow student’s suicide. Lagrange, as it turns out, does not exist, but then, isn’t that the film’s point? This flashback to Tony’s school days has been lifted directly from his memory, which is itself distorted not only by time, but by a sort of deliberate rewriting on Tony’s part, for he must find a way to live with himself after what happened to his good friend. As it turns out, he doesn’t know the half of it.
Tony’s rather unflattering plunge into self-absorption begins with the receipt of a letter, and like those wonderful thoughts that take shape only gradually over the course of several days in “The Lunchbox,” he takes rather a long time to get around to reading it. In places, “The Sense of an Ending” seems almost frustratingly uninterested in establishing, much less solving, the riddles at its core, when in fact, it’s merely uninterested in pandering to those who lack the patience to appreciate its nuances. Its most receptive audiences will almost certainly be older, with enough life experience to recognize the mix of curiosity and regret that ensnares us like so many wild brambles each time we hazard a stroll down Memory Lane.
The letter refers to a diary, which once belonged to Adrian but had since passed into the hands of Veronica’s mother, Sarah (Emily Mortimer, by far the liveliest presence amid all the film’s flashback scenes), for reasons that aren’t entirely clear — though in bequeathing it to Tony, Sarah dredges the past back up again. The movie, which fairly pulses with a latent homoeroticism just beneath the surface every time its hot-blooded young characters look at one another, teases us with possible explanations: What exactly is the nature of Tony and Adrian’s past relationship? Does Tony fancy both Veronica and her mother, or perhaps it’s her brother who occupies his solitary late-night fantasies? And what does his ex-wife (Harriet Walter) — or their very pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) — make of all this?
The explanation is at once simpler and more complicated than any of these questions could suggest, and it is revealed only after the last of the onion’s layers has been peeled away. It works to the film’s advantage that someone as benign as Broadbent should be playing Tony, since it offsets what a disagreeable character he might otherwise have been: Despite not being a particularly interesting or clever person in his own right, Tony is single-mindedly obsessed with resolving a relationship that played itself out decades earlier, to the point of stalking an ex who had otherwise left all memory of him in the dust.
Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica in the present, though she doesn’t appear until late in the film, like an ace that Batra has been keeping up his sleeve. Still beyond his grasp, Veronica has intercepted Adrian’s diary and has no intentions of returning it to Tony, which drives him crazy, sending him deeper into the spiral of his own narcissism — a far more unpleasant space to share if it weren’t for the wry way that Walter’s character (augmented significantly from the novel) has of humoring him. And Max Richter’s seductive score turns potential revulsion into a sort of unrequited melancholy.
Like a male-centric counterpart to Iain McEwan’s “Atonement,” Tony’s journey offers a poignant commentary on how each of us attempts to make meaning of our lives, distorting memories and destroying documentation to suit agendas we can’t entirely rationalize. It’s a fundamental human impulse to seek meaning in things, and yet, as Tony ultimately realizes, the corollary to the butterfly effect — where the smallest incident can have a seismic impact on other people’s lives — is admitting that sometimes we’ve left absolutely no impression at all.