In The Sense of an Ending (2017), veteran character actor Jim Broadbent gives a magnificent lead performance as a man confronting a tragic episode in his past. Mumbai’s Ritesh Batra directs this most British of mysteries. Playwright Nick Payne adapted the novel by Julian Barnes.
Tony Webster (Broadbent) is a London retiree. His camera shop is a sideline where he can indulge his passion for vintage Leicas. He’s amicably divorced from Margaret (Harriet Walter). His daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) is an expectant single mother. Tony appears neither terribly disappointed with life nor self-satisfied.
A letter upends his equilibrium. The mother of a girlfriend from long ago has bequeathed him something in her will. It takes a visit to the solicitor in charge of the estate to discover that it’s a diary. She doesn’t have it and isn’t certain where it is.
The mysterious letter triggers memories of boarding school in the 1960s. There’s the stiff formality of an upper class public school where pupils stand when the teacher enters the room. Played by Billy Howle, Tony is a sensitive youth majoring in English literature. He has many friends including a philosophical transfer student named Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn).
At a party, with the stereo playing the American rock song “Psychotic Reaction,” he meets the pouty, enigmatic Veronica Ford (Freya Mavor). She’s about his age, a camera buff. She gives mixed signals but Tony persists. He eventually meets her family, her father David (James Wilby), mother Sarah (Emily Mortimer) and brother Jack (Edward Holcroft).
They live on a wooded estate with lush meadows worthy of a Jane Austen novel. His life becomes entwined with theirs. The film recreates the England of Tony’s memory with a nostalgic glow that contrasts with the grit of contemporary, multicultural London.
Because of a tragedy, he’s kept his memories of this time buried. The letter and a chain of events that follow brings them back into focus. Why Sarah would include him in her will makes little sense. The diary holds the key, he believes, but Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) has it and she’s dropped out of sight.