A fascinating exploration of the sort of story we tell ourselves about our past.
“The Sense of an Ending is just one of those books I’ve always carried with me. Maybe I’m an old soul, but it just really speaks to me,” ‘says director Ritesh Batra, who was just one of a legion of fans enamored with Julian Barnes’s beautiful and beguiling novel, and brought it to life on film from a screenplay adaptation by playwright Nick Payne (Constellations) .
Tony Webster leads a reclusive and quiet existence until long buried secrets from his past force him to face the flawed recollections of his younger self, the truth about his first love and the devastating consequences of decisions made a lifetime ago.
Consisting of two parts, the novel concerns Tony, a man living a quiet and reclusive existence when a relic of his 60’s school days comes back to haunt him, forcing him to question everything that he thought he knew about his past and face the devastating consequences of his actions.
Winner of the Man Booker Prize that year, Barnes’s meditation on the fallacy of memory was notable not only for its nuance, but for an intricate structure set in two time periods and an unreliable narrator whose disclosures (or lack thereof) drive the pace of the narrative.
“On one hand it’s a psychological thriller, so people read it fairly quickly. On the other hand, it’s a novel that withholds things from you,” says Julian Barnes.
Adapting the Novel
Despite possessing a structure not immediately ripe for cinematic adaptation, award-winning playwright Nick Payne had also read the book and was intrigued by it. During a meeting with production company Origin Pictures, he was asked if he’d read anything recently that he’d liked. “I said ‘Well I’ve just finished this amazing book, The Sense of an Ending. ’It had won the Booker not long before so I assumed the rights would be unavailable but, miraculously, they were available.”
Founded in 2008 by former BBC Films head David Thompson with Ed Rubin as Head of Development, Origin Pictures already had such film production credits under their belt as Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, What We Did on our Holiday and Woman in Gold. Thompson and Rubin snapped up the rights and Payne set out on the adaptation.
The producers knew that to make Payne’s adaptation work they needed an innovative director able to translate the novel’s intricacies onto the screen in a way that was entirely relatable to the audience. Ritesh Batra, the director who had recently found success with the acclaimed film “The Lunchbox,” had also fallen for the book.
“Julian Barnes is one of those writers that when you read one book of his, you just go on a Julian Barnes spree” says Batra. “I have always loved the book since I read it back in 2011. I tracked it down a little bit, found out that it was already in development and forgot about it.”
The story did not end there, however.
“About a year after that I think the producers had seen my last movie, ‘The Lunchbox,’ and came to me with an offer to direct,” Batra continues. “I was very curious to see what the writer had done with it. I read the script and obviously fell in love with it.”
Though the script was a finished draft at that point, Payne and Batra sat down and worked through a few remaining issues together. The relationship was a fruitful one. “We just bounced around the script between us for a while,” Batra recalls. “It’s nice to work with people who are secure with their talent and just really open.”
Meeting Julian Barnes for the first time was a more daunting experience, however. Batra remembers: “We sat down in his garden and I’m sitting there, having tea and cake. He started saying something to me and went on for a good 5 minutes and I didn’t hear a single word he said because I’m thinking ‘I’m having tea with Julian Barnes!’”
If Batra was worried that he might be precious about the adaptation process, he was soon reassured by Barnes. “The last thing he said was ‘go ahead and betray me.’ I’m glad I caught that one.”
“The best way to be loyal as a filmmaker is to be disloyal to the book; I’ve always believed that,” says Barnes. “As long as you’ve handed it over to highly talented people, you have to let them fly free with it.”
Being given carte blanche to stray from the rigid structures of a faithful adaptation was the main attraction for Payne. “The thing that really appealed was that you can structurally do something quite playful, like the novel,” notes Payne. “The screenplay is almost a coming-of-age story, but about someone who’s in their sixties. Often that genre is reserved for people who are younger, but I think people continue to change their entire life.”
The aim of Batra’s direction and Payne’s script was to stay faithful to the essence of the book, but extrapolate place and character in such a way as to fill the screen in a cinematic sense. “A film can be a complement to a book but when you’re adapting something, all you can do is bring yourself to it,” continues Batra.
Because of the internalized narrative of Tony’s narration in the book, Payne and Batra’s collaboration needed to flesh out minor characters into fully formed roles, as well as to build on Tony’s perception of other characters to fully realize the emotional weight of each scene.
Joe Alwyn, who plays young Tony’s tragic school friend and rival Adrian, felt that the information gleaned from both the book and the script was enough to be able to fully realize his character, who is only described from memory in the novel. “The book is amazing because it gives you a mine of information, even though it is very internal and told from Tony’s perspective. But the script then does bring its own unique structure.”
Freya Mavor, who plays the young Veronica, Tony’s first love, really felt that the more fleshed out secondary characters added something to the story. “What Nick’s done really well is that these characters that are passing by in the book – the daughter, his friends, Margaret – they all become these pillars in the script.”
“I think that’s a feat to be able to do that and still remain so true to the book’s essence and feeling,” Mavor continues. “It’s a really fabulous adaptation.”
Harriet Walter, who plays Margaret, agrees that the development of characters such as her own is a definite benefit to the story: “Screen adaptations of novels often provide the richest roles for women and older people. I suppose because the authors are often experienced people who tell the story through an experienced observer. But it is also quite difficult to successfully adapt the subjectivity of that observer into a protagonist in a movie. What I find exceptional about this script is that some characters are more fleshed out than in the book. They have their own autonomy and therefore a different version of the truth from Tony’s. I think that Nick and Ritesh have done a great job with that, bringing more focus on to Tony’s family, my character, his ex-wife Margaret who in many ways knows Tony better than he knows himself, and their daughter Susie…her story points us and Tony into the future.”
Changes to the more fully formed characters in the story, such as Charlotte Rampling and Freya Mavor’s Veronica, also came about through working with the actors on set, explains Ritesh Batra. “The Veronica in the book is a tragic figure that really works within the book, but our Veronica is someone who is full of life, and her life is more interesting than Tony’s.”
Similarly, each actor brought their own interpretation to the role that necessitated changes in the script, compared to the story. Continues Batra: “Emily Mortimer, who plays Sarah Ford, is in many early versions of the story a seductress, but of course Emily brought such a great sophistication to the part that she really brought herself to it.”
The script is imbibed with Payne and Batra’s own relationship to the story too, and what they feel are the most important themes within it. Batra had a particularly close emotional connection to the thoughts and feelings of the older generation displayed within it. “I shared a room growing up with my granddad. Sadly he died when I was 18,” explains Batra. “I saw his sort of loneliness and his regret and everything he went through in that stage in life. I got to see it in close quarters so I’d like to think I can bring something to a story like this.”
Our Sense Of An Ending
“People like to fill in gaps in novels. Sometimes they fill them in wrongly, but that’s equally instructive to the novelist,” says Julian Barnes.
There is much left unsaid and unknown in Barnes’s novel, due to the one-sided nature of a lone narrator and the unreliability of his memory. This functions well in literary form, but presents new challenges for cinematic adaptation.
As such, Nick Payne and Ritesh Batra sought to embellish the story and characters to fill out a film script, but were mindful of retaining that air of mystery, to stay true to the tone of the novel.
“I probably didn’t realize it would be such a challenge. I think the bit that really appealed was that it was about memory, but not in a way that film normally is,” says Payne. “It’s a kind of everyday memory where everyday people have mythologised retrospectively how badly they treated people.”
This was appealing to Michelle Dockery. “A lot of the film is quite ambiguous and some things are left quite open for the audience to decide what they feel about a character. I like that it’s not all set from the beginning.”
The trick for Payne was to craft a script that would make sure that ambiguity was at the heart of the story, and Batra’s aim was to pick this up and ensure that the actors also bought into this with their performance.
Even the title itself holds a sense of ambiguity for Harriet Walter. “It’s a suitably enigmatic title. It contains the idea of making sense of an ending, the sense that one’s own life is coming to an end. And it contains the idea that we put an end to certain stories in our lives to wrap them up, but we can get that so wrong.”
Charlotte Rampling explains further. “I think we’ve all have our own versions of the story in our heads about what actually happened, because Julian Barnes doesn’t really give us many tips. And so we weave in and out of the story creating impressions through our own memories.”
“I hope there will be an awful lot of discussion about what the themes are. They’re all there up for grabs; people can find their own meanings and themes in the story,” says Jim Broadbent. “I think it is part of the nature of the whole film, this question of memory and history.”
“When you get to our age, memories are very far away! We have told certain stories for so long, it is a shock to be confronted with another version from someone else,” adds Walter.
Ultimately, the past we choose to forget and the nostalgia we each hold in our own lives are the reasons audiences will identify with Tony’s story.
“’The Sense of an Ending’ is a really a fascinating exploration of the sort of story we tell ourselves about our past,” says Freya Mavor.
“We lock away certain events of our lives until the time comes for us to remember. Then memory comes hammering on the door, a wake up call to make peace with the past,” continues Charlotte Rampling. “The story is about discovering certain sides of yourself that maybe you haven’t had a chance to reconnect with.”
Billy Howle agrees. “We all have regrets and things we are reluctant to discuss or even remember ourselves. And so our memories fool us, really, to protect us.”
Nick Payne sees something quite positive in Tony’s redemption and conscious choice to face up to the past he had chosen to forget. “He is given the opportunity to look back over his entire life and see it in a completely different way. I think there’s something quite optimistic about that. History is not infallible; it’s fluid and can change. You never run out of a second chance.”
What do the filmmakers hope audiences will take away from the film?
“I hope that (moviegoers) can walk away with a sense of a very particular kind of longing that Tony feels,” continues Nick Payne.
For Batra, the hope is more about making a film that complements the book, yet stands up as a film in its own right.
“I really hope we populated Julian’s universe in a way that’s true to the movie and the book as well. He’s just a wonderfully generous man and I hope the movie and the book can exist together as complements.”