Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending is a tale of nostalgia that should’ve found its footing on dramatic grounds. But the film, based on Julian Barnes’s acclaimed 2011 novel, unfolds as if it were a whodunit whose only mystery revolves around the inconsequential possession of a diary. Tony (Jim Broadbent) is a retired and divorced photography aficionado living a satisfying but mundane life when he’s told that the mother of an old fling from his youth has just passed away and left him her diary. The trouble is that the woman’s daughter, Veronica (Rampling), isn’t willing to hand the pages over. The premise is completely anodyne, and lends itself to little to no narrative weight, despite some subplots involving someone’s suicide and botched attempts at cuteness featuring father-and-daughter bonding over yoga.
Flashbacks to Tony’s youth are interweaved with his present-day activities, which seem to consist entirely of daily coffee dates with his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter), and clumsy exchanges with his pregnant lesbian daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery). The aging Tony is awkward and unqualified to deal with his feelings (or anyone else’s), but he means well. After Toni Erdmann, the bar has been set sigh for depictions of endearing paternal incompetence. Sadly, Broadbent’s everyman in this film doesn’t possess much charisma, only restrained grumpiness. Instead of being interested in repairing—or at least addressing—his superficial relationship with Susie, Tony spends his time reminiscing over a time when life felt like a series of fantastic promises when in fact, we learn, it’s nothing but a series of holding pens.
Luckily, Rampling turns up to, if not to save the day, at least to make such apathy more palatable for a spell. She grants us the film’s only memorable scene when Tony finally meets up with Veronica, whom he dated when they were college students. They’re both at a café when she tells him that she’s burned her mother’s diary, after which Veronica exits the establishment, leaving Tony alone at the table. And when the waitress comes over to him and glibly sets down the drinks they ordered, as if Veronica will be right back to sip on her green tea, the camera lingers on the pathetic image of man with two drinks on the table before him and no company to talk to.
It’s always a pleasure to watch Rampling lend so much seriousness to any role. But the brief moments when she’s on screen here further expose the flimsiness of the narrative as a whole, as the actress registers as the only multi-dimensional element in the film. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years also involved a very similar return-of-the-repressed plot but one that was actually steeped in visceral pathos and nuance. In The Sense of an Ending her gravitas is so great it feels out of place, strangely capsizing the film.