Julian Barnes' The Sense of an Ending was an award winning novel regarding ageing, the effect of memory and subjectivity, and also of loss; perfect territory to be explored in cinema. However, despite a great deal of faithfulness to its source material and, in certain places, fleshing out some dynamics to a greater extent, the whole film comes across as rather clinical and unaffecting; all of this is strange considering the emotions at play.
The reliable and perfectly cast Jim Broadbent stars as Tony Webster, a curmudgeonly man in his twilight years who lives alone following his amicable divorce and has a rather detached relationship with his pregnant daughter, Susie (a perfectly adequate Michelle Dockery). Tony's world is thrown into disarray by the arrival of a letter from an old face who has passed and left him something he doesn't quite understand, which will lead to him uncovering secrets from the past and his own responsibilities.
Broadbent fits the role of the disgruntled and confused Tony well; it's a role he is well-versed in. Tony's younger self played by Billy Howle (of Glue) is something of a cipher himself and a bit lacking of personality as he pursues romance with the mysterious and cold Veronica (an underused Freya Mavor of Skins). The flashback scenes are scattered throughout but few have any depth, except the weekend Tony spends with Veronica's family and meets her antagonistic family saved for her delicate mother, Sarah (played mysteriously by Emily Mortimer).
The trouble with the lack of real depth and warmth in these flashbacks is that it leaves the scenes in the present all a bit tedious - why should we care about what Tony is trying to understand about his old friends and Veronica and her family? Broadbent is good but it feels so distant that we don't really feel our protagonist's emotions. In fact the only real cold and detached element of the film that works is the performance of the always masterful Charlotte Rampling as the present day Veronica. Rampling's Veronica is as much a cipher as her flashback counterpart, but Rampling gives such a haunted and brittle quality that it gives a real sense of sympathy and genuinely intriguing enigma that is lost in the rest of the film.
Apart from Rampling, the rest of the performances while competent are kind of lacking a real sense of depth. The film expands the role of Susie to give Michelle Dockery a bit more meat to her story but while it gives some nice scenes for Broadbent to act with, it all feels a little too hollow and one dimensional. Harriet Walter does her best as Tony's ex-wife Margaret, who remains his advisor and confidante in the present too, but their relationship is never explored enough to provide a real sense of care. On another note: why is Matthew Goode there to cameo as a dull history teacher who throws apples around?
Overall, when the mystery of the letter is revealed it all feels a little contrived and never fully executed, partly because too many of the characters are ciphers and too many of the relationships we just don't care about. Barnes' novel is terrific for its feeling and philosophising but the benefit of his well written prose is that it really gets inside Tony's head, but this film's version never really shows himself beyond a grump as an old man and dull guy in his youth. The book also evokes a genuine debate regarding perspective but the film just offers a shallow summary of this debate. Some things are best left on the page it would seem, but more Rampling is always welcome.
Despite some brilliant actors and exemplary source material, The Sense of Ending fails to provide a real sense of feeling; save for Charlotte Rampling.