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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



The Sense of an Ending, Review by Siraj Syed: Sensible transition from novel to film

The Sense of an Ending, Review by Siraj Syed: Sensible transition from novel to film

Many a times, tragic-romantic novels that get made into films tend to be laboured and over ‘textualised’. Not so the The Sense of an Ending. Indian director Ritesh Batra keeps this British film largely simple and lets his actors carry it forward, which works well. A simple story with a tragic and profound undercurrent of regret, the film does not have too much to offer, but gets its basics right. The triumvirate of seniors in the cast—Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Rampling, Harriet Walter—have competent shoulders and carry the film smoothly on its flashback-ridden journey.

Narrated by Tony Webster (Broadbent) and written in two parts, the novel tells the story of Tony Webster, when he is retired, runs a small antique camera shop, is a divorcee, is happily separated from his wife whom he still meets, has a daughter who is pregnant, and lives alone. It begins in present day and gets into flashback when Webster receives a letter from a lawyer, which takes him back to the 1960s, when four intellectually arrogant school friends, of whom two feature in the remainder of the story: Tony, the narrator, and Adrian, the most precociously intelligent of the four.

Towards the end of their school days, a fellow student at the school hangs himself, apparently after getting a girl pregnant. The four friends discuss the philosophical difficulty of knowing exactly what exactly happened, with innumerable possibilities. Adrian goes to Cambridge University and Tony to Bristol. Tony acquires a girlfriend, Veronica, at whose family home he spends an awkward weekend. In his final year at university, Tony receives a letter from Adrian informing him that he is going out with Veronica. Tony replies to the letter, pouring venom from his pen. The first part of the novel ends here, leading into the much longer second part. But the film is not divided into two parts, like the novel, and continues, moving back and forth like a calibrated pendulum.

Julian Barnes wrote this novel, which was first published in 2011. The title is borrowed from a book of the same name by Frank Kermode, first published in 1967, subtitled Studies in the Theory of Fiction. Barnes’s effort won him the Man Booker Prize that year, after three unsuccessful short-listings. Screenwriter, and playwright, Briton Nick Payne made a huge impact in 2012 with the ingenious play Constellations. His play, Elegy, was also very well received as was The Art of Dying.

The Sense of an Ending has shades of brilliance in characterisation and detailing, both in physical manifestations and linguistic nuances. All the characters seem credible and representative of their ethos. In particular, the oldies (above 65 age-group) come across as leaves out of life itself. Only occasionally, the film appears over-written and there is too much of talk-talk. Fortunately for viewers, the accent being British means that you are not likely to miss and dialogue. Tony and Veronica's first meeting in interestingly played out. 

As a successor to 2013 much-raved, bittersweet The Lunchbox, it may not rank in the same league as director Ritesh Batra’s first feature. 37-year-old Batra is putting the finishing touches on his third feature, the Netflix drama Our Souls at Night, starring Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, There are shades of brilliance in The Sense of an Ending, though the whole film falls well short of the masterpiece grade. Proceedings tend to slacken in the second half, as also getting cyclic and repetitive. Not indulging in cinematic jugglery, he takes a back-seat often, letting the immersive performances and the language spectrum diffract the images. It is, in a host of ways, a very British film.

Batra says of the book, “One of the first things I thought, regarding its ambiguities, is how much is between the lines--and the beautiful thing is that it’s only the size of a novella. I was really conscious about preserving that ambiguity.” There are loads of ambiguities in the story, and sometimes one too many. A story like this one cannot, by definition, be elevating or entertaining. The lighter moments he captures at school and college are the exception--there is more gloom than bloom for the average viewer. Constant eating, wining and dining, though good for creating the slice-of-life ambience, interferes with story-telling. A sense of partial closure pervades the end, and the discerning cine-goer will emerge from the auditorium heavy with reflection and reassessment of elements of his/her own life.

Jim Broadbent (Harry Potter series, The Iron Lady, Asterix, The Legend of Tarzan), Charlotte Rampling (Georgy Girl, The Damned, London Sky, 45 Years), Michelle Dockery (Anna Karenina, Non-Stop, Downtown Abbey) and Harriet Walter (Sense and Sensibility, Star Wars, Babel, Atonement) play out the odd quadrangle that is up close, like theatre through a zoom lens. Broadbent is a warts and all old man, usually grumpy, a curmudgeon ("mudge" is how they say it in the movie; look-up the word) , but still full of beans. Charlotte Rampling as the older Veronica brings to her part a cold, detached, albeit confused grace. Harriet Walter expresses ambivalent feeling for her divorced husband whenever they meet, and that is quite often. All three are in the 65-75 age bracket, in real-life, which helps them get under the skins of their parts with little adaptation required. Michelle Dockery is 36, and guess what age she is portraying on screen as the Websters’s daughter?

Also in the hand-picked cast are:

Joe Alwyn as Adrian Finn Sr. (at school, showing shades of brilliance)

Andrew Buckley as Adrian Finn Jr. (at University, his brilliance shining through)

Emily Mortimer as Sarah Ford, Veronica's mother (a rather unusual mother, who advises her daughter’s suitor not to “let her get away with it”)

Edward Holcroft as Jack Ford, Veronica’s brother (has some appealing, funny lines.

James Wilby as David Ford, Veronica’s father

Proceeding to remind you of the Ismail Merchant and James Ivory series of filmed novels, but they were mostly languorous and burdensome. The Sense of an Ending has nothing for the masses but something, surely, for the intelligentsia. And if you have read the book, a viewing of the metamorphosis from novel to film may well be in order.

Rating: ***


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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