When capturing a book on screen may prove harder than it seems

This is my review of The Sense of An Ending [DVD] [2017].

Amicably divorced, running a small camera shop as a retirement hobby, Tony Webster is jolted out of his superficially pleasant existence by an unexpected bequest from Sarah, mother of Veronica, the girlfriend from his student days. Memories come flooding back of his elitist secondary school where, in a clique of pretentious, precocious yet immature boys, he looked up to and befriended Adrian, the new boy who dared to spar intellectually with the teachers. He also has vivid recollections of Veronica, provocative but always holding back, and the excruciating visit to her wealthy but decidedly odd, perhaps emotionally warped family, not least her flirtatious mother.

What has become of Veronica over the decades? Why, as executor, has she destroyed Adrian’s diary, which is what the bequest proves to be? Why did Adrian commit suicide in his youth, and how did Sarah come by the diary anyway? What part did Tony play in all this, and to what extent is he to blame for any tragedy? Has a sense of unfinished business and his own culpability, real or imagined, for past events stunted his own emotions over the years, undermining his marriage and turning him into what his ex-wife and daughter describe as an old “curmudgeon”?

To the horror of his barrister ex-wife, who may even be a little jealous, Tony virtually stalks Veronica in his attempt to discover the truth, Even when he thinks he has found it, there is a further poignant twist.

Although true to the original plot, the Director felt the need to flesh out the details of Tony’s family life far more than in the original book. So, the birth of his daughter’s first child becomes one of the most moving points in the story, whereas it does not occur at all in the book. Similarly, the spiky but affectionate relations with his ex-wife are an entertaining aspect of the film but not the book. This may be because, without these embellishments, the book has a kind of detached, emotionally cool quality which may not make for “good box office”. What the book does possess, of course, is the distinctive, highly articulate, insightful, at times philosophical style which is what won it the Man Booker. Although the film tries to retain some of this by using Tony as a voice-over narrator at times, it obviously cannot capture all Julian Barnes’s wry wisdom.

I remember that the book was a page turner as regards finding out what happened, creating the sense of the need to reread it to get the full meaning, although this did not happen in my case because I felt “let down” over the denouement, which seems somewhat contrived. So, it is perhaps unsurprising if the film has the same flaw.

This film is essentially about the need for closure, which may become more urgent towards the end of our lives. It is well-acted, with Jim Broadbent as a sound anchor, but the storyline seems too undeveloped and fragmented in places, with some scenes, such as the classroom teaching, or encounters with Veronica’s family cringe-making in their falsity – although perhaps that is part of the point.

⭐⭐⭐ 3 Stars

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