A man builds his life. He tells his story, he buries his secrets, and he forgets his lies. Then he grows old and begins to wonder: Was I right? Was I wrong? Did I say too much? Not enough? Too bad he forgets to ask the one question that really matters: Does anyone care?
At least that’s what Tony Webster—played by Jim Broadbent and known affectionately by his friends and family as “Mr. Webster”—should be asking himself. This curmudgeonly divorcé spends his days in a quiet and suffocating routine of running his boutique camera repair shop and not giving a good goddamn about the world around him. Then one day, a letter from the past arrives and sends Mr. Webster into the throes of memories long forgotten. Of first love, friendship, and betrayal.
This letter—from his first girlfriend’s estate after her mother died—prompts Mr. Webster to call up the ex-Mrs. Webster, Margaret (Harriet Walter), and recount for her in painstaking detail his first love, sexual frustration, and crucial events that shaped his whole existence. This is the first time she has heard any of this, which makes the mind wonder: What exactly did they talk about for all those years? The more Mr. Webster prattles on, the more we see why he has a camera repair shop, why he loves the poems of Dylan Thomas, why he breaks his eggs when he cooks breakfast—did this simply not come up during their marriage? Or did he just not trust her with the truth?
While Mr. Webster deals with his three-quarter’s life crisis, his adult daughter (Michelle Dockery) is preparing for her first child. With no partner is in sight and the ex-Mrs. Webster on injured reserve, Mr. Webster has to step in and help out, which he does in between bouts of memory and stalking his long-ago infatuation, Veronica (played by Charlotte Rampling in the present tense and by Freya Mavor in flashback). He’s nothing if not consistent.
The Sense of an Ending is a movie that is prim and proper, prettily photographed, and entirely too boring. The story Mr. Webster recounts covers many twists and turns, each one slightly darker. But the time it takes to get up to speed isn’t worth the payoff. Partly because The Sense of an Ending is wholly and reductively infatuated with its male protagonist and not one of the women featured in Mr. Webster’s life. Not once does Mr. Webster allow them to interject during his stories or explanations. Do these women have opinions? Do their stories matter to him? Apparently not. When his daughter goes into labor, Mr. Webster drops a bombshell on her that would be better reserved for Sunday brunch. Timing, Mr. Webster. Timing.
But the problem of Mr. Webster might not be the character’s tone-deaf approach to his female relationships but the writer’s. Adapted from Julian Barnes’s novel of the same name, The Sense of an Ending neuters each female voice until they are an extension of Mr. Webster’s consciousness. The most egregious example of this is when an ancillary male character approaches Mr. Webster and asks him to leave Veronica and her family alone. Never mind that she asked him the same on multiple occasions. For some reason, her pleas never stuck. This time it does.
No wonder his first love ditched him for another man, his wife divorced him, and his daughter has a distant relationship with him. There’s room in the world for Mr. Webster and Mr. Webster alone. Everything else is just clutter.
The Sense of an Ending (2017)
Directed by Ritesh Batra
Screenplay by Nick Payne
Based on the novel by Julian Barnes
Produced by Ed Rubin, David M. Thompson
Starring: Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter, Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Emily Mortimer, Billy Howle, Joe Alwyn
CBS Films, Rated PG-13, Running time 108 minutes, Opens March 17, 2017