Two films into his career, Ritesh Batra has found a refreshing way to build stories around familiar frameworks. His 2014 debut “The Lunchbox” revolved around love letters between unknown writers, but there was a distinct charm that elevated the film above a simple romance. His sophomore effort “The Sense of an Ending,” an adaptation of Julian Barnes’ 2011 novel, follows another well-worn path, that of a man reconciling first love and fateful decisions of decades past. But it’s how both of these premises evolve that show Batra’s willingness to embrace the full scope of life’s experiences.
“The Sense of an Ending” finds Tony, a retired owner of a small camera shop in Tufnell Park, receiving a vague letter addressed to him from the distant past, tied to the family of a lover from his university days. When he goes to collect the promised attached personal effects, Tony also discovers that Veronica — the subject of his first romance — is withholding a diary that he believes is intended for him. As Tony tries to discern the reasons for Veronica’s distance, his retelling of a fateful college-aged saga to his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) sets the stage for a reframing of the past that Tony can’t anticipate.
Batra gracefully melds these twin timelines, both in furtive spurts from Tony’s subconscious and in flashbacks. Nick Payne’s screenplay unwinds the details of this curious family entanglement, reveling in the momentary laughs and frustrations, but saving the full breadth of the story for its later revelations.
As the film obfuscates certain details, it does telegraph a handful of coming twists with occasional overemphasis, but the visual representation of this journey through memory provides an anchor. Different characters hop across the boundaries of time in passing hallucinations, while some sounds do the same, dripping over conversations happening half a century later.
Despite Tony’s cantankerous tendencies, Broadbent brings a great warmth to his character’s amateur sleuthing, even when those pursuits overstep the bounds of etiquette. As each step in reliving his past brings the man closer to a long-awaited reckoning, Broadbent tempers the dread with a muted longing that Tony’s best efforts can’t hide. There’s hope and despair behind his eyes and in the most devastating scenes, they’re there in equal measure.
More than anything, “The Sense of an Ending” reinforces Batra as a keen observer of small moments. The preparation of morning coffee and the addressing of a postcard are each delivered in sharply edited montages that delight in the ordinary and bring an unexpected vibrance to the tiny rituals of everyday life. The constant focus on the humanity at its heart makes the sentimentality of this cross-generational story feel earned.
And there’s patience within those observations. Despite the occasional narrative trickery that helps connect the young Tony with the old, Batra still finds time for a handful of uninterrupted conversations between strangers, lovers and old friends. All are captured from a safe distance, but with an unmoving camera that amplifies the tiny changes in each character that reverberate so strongly with each added piece of the puzzle.
In turn, that patience is rewarded in the film’s other top-flight performances. As the elder Veronica, Charlotte Rampling brings a stillness to the two’s shared history. As Tony and Veronica sit across from each other at a cafe table, Rampling conveys an entire life’s heartbreak and resilience in a single look. As the other half of an amiable split, Walter’s handling of Margaret’s alternating curiosity and disappointment says everything about the reasons for her marriage’s dissolution.
Tony and Margaret’s pregnant daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) offers a convenient parallel to the family dysfunction that fuels so much of Tony’s rediscovery. While their family dynamic feels as lived-in as anything else in the film, it’s too tidy of a bookend for a film that otherwise draws so much from its subtlety.
But despite the minor slip-ups, “The Sense of an Ending” understands the power of life’s totemic memories and the folly of indulging a narrow view of what make them so significant. Much like Max Richter’s dreamy (and characteristically poetic) score, the story echoes through periods of discovery, loss, redemption and reconciliation without being dominated by any of them. Modest in its ambition but profound in its specificity, Batra gets to the core of the slipperiness of memory and the allure of the past. It’s not through grand pronouncements and cosmic love stories; instead, a handful of unshakable moments do the trick.
“The Sense of an Ending” screened as the Opening Night film of the 2017 Palm Springs International Film Festival. CBS Films will release the film in theaters later this spring.