“I’m a great believer in time’s revenge.” The words are spoken late in “The Sense of an Ending,” though it might be just as accurate to say that they are spoken early.
In the tradition of movies in which the wounds of the past bleed heavily into the present, this British puzzle box leaps back and forth in time, bridging the gap between an old man’s present-day existence and his lively 1960s school days.
The older version of Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) has lived a quiet, ordinary life. He works at a vintage camera shop, when he’s not testing the patience of his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter), and their tough-minded daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery).
But one day Tony receives word of the death of an older acquaintance, Sarah Ford, who has bequeathed to him a relic from the past — one that Veronica Ford, Sarah’s daughter and Tony’s former girlfriend, refuses to surrender. The complications that ensue trigger a flood of painful memories, implicating Tony anew in a tragedy that he has never come to terms with.
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No artistic medium can manipulate time more quickly or adroitly than cinema, but that ease of movement can quickly turn cheap and facile, a triumph of match cuts over meaning. And “The Sense of an Ending,” despite its polished construction and immaculate pedigree, doesn’t ultimately mean as much as it thinks it does.
Directed by Ritesh Batra, the film offers a skillful dilution of Julian Barnes’ novel, which had the patience and tonal assurance to tell its two-part story from start to finish. Batra’s chronological hopscotch, unfortunately, calls undue attention to its own cleverness: Every dramatic payoff is applauded, every thematic echo vigorously underlined.
Charlotte Rampling brings her usual steely self-possession to bear as Veronica. She’s played in flashback by Freya Mevor, while Joe Alwyn makes a superb impression as Adrian Finn, who turned Tony and Veronica’s relationship into a triangle. The younger version of Tony is appealing played by Billy Howle.
But the movie is ultimately Broadbent’s showcase, and he shoulders the dramatic burden with sly, curmudgeonly expertise. He wisely doesn’t soft-pedal the fact that, even before his dark secret comes tumbling out, Tony Webster seems like a lousy fellow.
The lingering frustration of “The Sense of an Ending,” apart from its mechanical plotting, is that it seems content to coddle and indulge Tony more than it challenges him. Tony’s guilt and anguish are resolved in a sudden welter of reassuring music and equally reassuring voice-over. You sense the ending coming a long way off, but catharsis remains out of reach.
“The Sense of an Ending”
Rated PG-13, for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality and brief strong language. 1:48. Kentucky, Winchester.