Director Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending adapts Julian Barnes’s Booker Prize-winning novel about an aging Englishman named Tony (Jim Broadbent) who is gently forced to reckon with his past — in particular, the souring of his school-days relationships with best friend Adrian and his girlfriend Veronica.
Matthew Lickona: The interplay of past and present is not just important to the film — it’s the film’s whole theme. How did you approach the depiction of that?
Ritesh Batra: It’s kind of a strange beast compared to other movies with flashbacks, because here we are going back for long periods of time — five minutes, seven minutes, ten minutes — into a different world of the main character’s choosing and then popping back into the present. We had to find embellishments, ways to keep the audience in Tony’s shoes and interested in his present-day quest for the sense of an ending. We used interplay between past and present, with Tony walking around in his own past and also imitating the knuckle-cracking that Veronica does in the past.
Visually, we did a lot with costumes, locations, and production design. We used warmer colors for the past, tried to make it look less gloomy than the present, which is quite stark. Even in the boys’ school, which didn’t lend itself to the range of colors we have in the rest of the past, the image was dominated by wood surroundings, and that lent another warmth to the frame. And while we used standard spherical camera lenses for the present, we used anamorphic lenses for the past, which do very interesting things with light and also give you a breadth of image.
ML: And you used physical devices, like Tony’s watch.
RB: In the book, the boys, including Tony, have this thing about wearing their watches with the face on the underside of their wrists. When they explain the sort of flawed logic of it to Adrian, he doesn’t think too highly of it. And when Tony meets Veronica, she questions it. When we came into the present, we tried to find a way to incorporate the watch, not just to carry those memories forward, but to speak to Tony’s character: he gets so lost in another time that he forgets to buy batteries for his watch, and it stops. It’s the kind of detail that you might catch on a first viewing, or a second viewing, or not at all, but it’s important.
ML: Broadbent shines here, but he gets a great deal of help in doing so from the women around him: his ex-wife, his daughter, and his long-ago girlfriend Veronica, played by Charlotte Rampling.
RB: We needed the scenes with Tony and his ex-wife to be rich, so that they didn’t just feel functionary — a way to cut to the flashbacks. Tony’s telling her the story of his past, but we need to have Tony and Margaret’s relationship in the telling — who they are as a couple, why they were together, and why they’re not together now. We talked a lot on set about their marriage, and the actors brought all those discussions to those scenes. His daughter isn’t as much of a character in the book, but we wanted to take the story forward for closure — the sense of an ending, even though no such thing really exists.
And as for Veronica, we were so fortunate to have Charlotte Rampling because the character travels such a long distance. Tony’s character is the same when he’s young and when he’s old. But when you meet the young Veronica, she’s full of possibility and exuberance; she could be anything or anyone. When you meet her years later, Charlotte comes to you with all the triumphs and tragedies of her own life; she comes with a lot of weight to the screen.
ML: I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to note that there is a suicide in the film. And the shot you used to depict it was particularly striking.
RB: When Tony first thinks about it, it’s right after his quest begins, right after he starts to realize that everything is not as light and fluffy as it seems. Tony was not a witness to it, so we had license with the depiction. I’ve had family members who have killed themselves, and I imagine it in very stark terms. Because there’s so much involved in it: the last conversation you could have had, or the thing you could have done to prevent it. So when we entered Tony’s mind there, I felt we could be very stark, and striking, and even a little jarring.