18 May 2017

The Sense of an Ending

A film by Ritash Batra.

reviewed by J.R.Thomas

The Shaw Sheet is not like other media sheets that your eye may occasionally fall on; we like to think through our views of events, consider what things might mean, and generally take our time, so that readers will get a properly balanced and thoughtful view of the world.  And anyway, when it comes to stage and silver screen, the Editor likes to wait until the cheap tickets are on sale.  Which probably means that by the time your critic has sat in the economy seats chewing his ageing biro for sagacious and considered thoughts, the movie or stage piece has moved on to Vue Bolton or to that mysterious video recording unit from which it might emerge in six months, or not.

Which may sadly be the case with this week’s film review.  A Sense of an Ending has been out two weeks and was never likely to pull in endless hordes of punters anyway.  That is in spite of a stellar cast and some crisp camera and sound work, and even with the benefit of the relatively recent publication of Julian Barnes’s book of the same title, which sold strongly in certain London postcodes and in good home county bookshops.  Mr Barnes has the ability to use few words to convey a lot with the welcome result that his books are both powerful, and short.  And thus easy to film, presumably.  Certainly, there seemed to be very few cuts made in the screen adaptation of A Sense of an Ending, which conveys the dilemma and difficulty of managing how we are seen by others and how we see ourselves, through the play of unexpected events over a month or so.

A little plotting first though.  Tony (Jim Broadbent) is an ageing middle class Londoner of mildly liberal tendencies running a small business, an antique camera shop.  As everything and anything in a Barnes novel can be significant, it may well be that the fact that his life centres round ageing instruments that record snapshots of life onto film – but also through a medium which crops and trims – is important.  It may be something, or one of a number of things indeed, which the reader, and viewer, should carefully note for later pondering.  Tony is divorced, from Margaret (Harriet Walter), and has a daughter in her mid 30’s (Michelle Dockery) who has deliberately chosen to become a single parent and is about to give birth.  But Tony, even on his best days a distracted grouch, has something on his mind.  He has been left £500 and a diary by the mother of a girl with whom he had an intense but short teenage affair.  We are about to start plot spoiling so will stop at this point.

No doubt though you are starting to get the idea.  Tony’s past, a perfectly normal past for a bright university graduate and small businessman, is starting to intrude on his present.  He confides in his ex-wife, frequently and at great length.  The ex is more than a bit miffed to find that none of these confidences came out during their marriage.  She is even more miffed by what she starts to find out about her ex-husband.  And if one can be triple miffed, she is so by a yet further, more detailed, and less reputable version that he tells her one evening.  There is some splendid acting by a very well put together cast here, with Broadbent and Walter and Charlotte Rampling as the leads, and very inspired casting of Billy Howle and Freya Mavor as the teenage incarnations of these now aged and agonising Londoners; to capture realistically the youth of a character now forty years or more older is not easy, but it is done convincingly enough here.

A lot of  critics in lesser publications, and indeed in on-line chat rooms and the like, have complained that what is going on in the film, and perhaps more so in the book, right up to and beyond the end, is not clear.  “What,” cry the chatroom inhabitants “is the meaning of the ending?”  And what do all the lingering camera shots portend; what is the significance of the fried eggs that go so wrong, the little wave after that strange sexually charged weekend away?

The clue, one might suggest, is in the title. That is the point of the work.  Barnes is not, we suspect, going to put a little note on some blog to explain what X meant, and how Y should be understood, and how they all lived happily ever after, let alone how best to fry eggs.  That is what his book is seeking to convey; that generally we don’t live happily ever after, nor, thankfully, unhappily ever after.  We just get on with life, polishing it and smoothing it and forgetting the very embarrassing bits, to say nothing of amplifying the bits which show us in the best light. (I met Prince Philip once; you know, he was very funny.  I did, and he was, and the other fifteen or so people clustered sycophantically and silently around him no doubt thought so too.) We adjust history to impress our friends a bit, but also to make it possible to live with ourselves, so we don’t spend our entire old age agonising over past embarrassments and stupidities. Then we forget the adjustments and believe that is how it was.

But sometimes, as for Tony, the truth of the past intrudes into our present, a shark’s fin breaking into the smooth water in which we like to swim along.  Then we have to adjust the published version of what we told everybody; and if the shark rises higher out of the water, we might find that further adjustment becomes necessary.  That is what is happening to poor old Tony, and if it happens to you, pray that you have a Margaret to patiently listen to you amending your amendments.

Even so, sometimes we have hidden some truths so much from ourselves that, actually, we don’t really know what they are until that shark takes a bite.  And if the shark swims off, we may be left still not knowing what we really did, how crass or hurtful we really were.  Time to polish up another ending, or at least, a sense of an ending.  Barnes is saying, that this is how most of us rumble along; we never quite know everything – even about ourselves.  And life goes on, until it stops.  Then our best hope is that we can leave behind a nice version of who we are, and that nothing unpleasant comes out, so awful that nobody will ever come to lay flowers on our graves.

A Sense of an Ending is a small story, a parable for modern times.  It is what might happen, does happen, to me or you or the man on the underground with the sad face.  We never tell all and certainly will never know all, but would we really want to?

“A Sense of an Ending” by Julian Barnes, adapted for film by Nick Payne, and directed by Ritash Batra, is currently showing at Curzon and independent cinemas (and possibly at the Vue Bolton). No doubt it will soon be on video if you miss it; or the book is out in paperback.

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