Wednesday 12 April 2017

Period pains: "The Sense of an Ending"

Perhaps this was inevitable, but here we are: Liberal Elite - The Movie, a film commissioned in Bloomsbury from a book that set a few square miles in Islington chattering, about a Jeremy Corbyn-alike dithering towards the realisation that he was wrong to raise his voice against representatives of the landed gentry. By rights, The Sense of an Ending should play matinee screenings at the Hampstead Everyman until the end of time, and precisely nowhere else. A sense of irrelevancy spirals out from protagonist Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a physically spry yet curmudgeonly old cove who spends his afternoons in semi-retirement, repairing Leica cameras. It isn't just that Corbynesque facefuzz that gives him the air of a man out of time and touch: a habitual letter writer - taking particular delight whenever one of his missives graces the pages of his beloved Guardian - he has to be handed an iPhone by his heavily pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) in case of a birthing emergency. Still, life has a way of coming out of the blue at you, be you seventy or seventeen.

Those who've read Julian Barnes' Booker-winning novel will already have some indication of the blasts from the past heading this codger's way. Yet the film, adapted by emergent theatrical star Nick Payne (Constellations) and directed by Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), treats them more like mildly awkward interventions: a series of lawyers' letters promising to bequeath Tony odds and sods from his younger days (never delivered), dozy memories of his time as a lovestruck teenager, prompted by leisurely lunch conversations with an altogether too patient and forgiving ex-wife (Harriet Walter). Very quickly, we get a sense of a bungee-cord structure that would serve readers rather better than it does cinemagoers: every time Tony seems to be heading towards some realisation about the events of his past, we're tugged back to the present day, a withholding technique that notionally underlines Barnes's theorem that we can never fully grasp the whole truth of another person's life.

Batra has ways of finessing Payne's approach in the editing suite. As one door in the present closes, another opens in the past; a cut unites the older and younger Tonies shaving at the bathroom mirror. Yet for at least an hour, the film is tryingly underdramatic: a petty administrative squabble that sets its characters to waffling whenever they're not going round and round in judiciously furnished circles. Here, Batra is no help whatsoever. The restraint he displayed in his first feature - thereby distinguishing it from the ranks of blood-and-thunder Bollywood melodrama - now feels like nothing more than placidity or timidity, born of the desire to impress his new BBC Films paymasters: he's getting everybody to hit their marks without once threatening to frighten the horses. You might give him credit for having developed a stiff upper lip in record time, but it gets in the way of the character revelations here. A suicide barely puts a ripple in the film's haut-bourgeois surface; a scene of confrontation - in Foyles' cafe, natch - peters out with a cutesy punchline involving the pregnant lesbians at the next table; a pursuit along the Bank branch of the Northern Line is shot with all the urgency of an afternoon TV spot for incontinence pads. 

Maybe that's all the Silver Screen crowd require: something genteel to nod off in front of before Escape to the Country comes back on. Yet the approach entirely shortsells Broadbent's willingness to play less than sympathetic: he gives great resting sourpuss face here, and has a way of delivering a banal line like "whenever suits" that is almost perfectly pushy and passive-aggressive. Barnes was writing to expose a particular, emotionally frozen kind of Englishness - one happier around inanimate objects than people, and perhaps not uncommon in certain literary circles - yet that inquiry surely demanded a far tougher film than this effete middlebrow construction, one that was prepared to get its hands dirty and mix it up a little (rather as, say, 2006's Judi Dench psychodrama Notes on a Scandal did). Whatever knotty intellectual life and raw human truth the author first put on the page - elements the inquiring Payne would have been well placed to extract, were he too not looking to make friends and influence people - it's been comprehensively flattened out to provide the basis of yet another fustily pretty, inertly functional, stiflingly well-made British picture. 

The Sense of an Ending opens in cinemas nationwide from Friday.

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