Not much sense to this ending

Nicholas Clee
Opinion - Books Wednesday, 29 March 2017

The adapters of Julian Barnes' Man Booker winner have ignored the darkness of his narrative in favour of cosy uplift

"You just don't get it, do you?" says Veronica, the former girlfriend of Tony, the narrator of Julian Barnes's Man Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending. "You never did, and you never will." At this stage, four-fifths of the way through the novel, some readers may feel that they won't ever get it, either. Barnes asks them to do a bit of work, and has already warned that the "truth" may be elusive. The makers of the film version - altogether more forgiving of Tony, and lacking Veronica's words above - faced a challenge, one that is not unusual for adapters of novels: how do you recreate a character's partial vision with a camera? Unless you include huge chunks of voiceover, how do you suggest the gap between the narrator's words and what the reader infers?

In the book, Tony tells the back story to the reader, and then reports how his ex-wife Margaret responds to it. In the film, the meetings between Tony (Jim Broadbent) and Margaret (Harriet Walter) are the frame for the back story. The result is that their conversations, sparingly reported by Barnes, come across as narrative contrivances.

Barnes is, indeed, sparing with dialogue throughout. Screenplay writer Nick Payne - a playwright, who may have been cautious about producing too talky a script - has only lightly fleshed out the original, and in consequence given us a good many scenes that are inert, without any compensating cinematic eloquence from director Ritesh Batra.

In this respect, the filmmakers have been too faithful to Barnes' original. In another, they have falsified it. Anyone who knows the author and his work will be astonished at his association with a drama in which the birth of a child is an emotional turning point. And they may find irony in the title: the sense of Barnes' ending is here completely overturned.

Still: Tony (Jim Broadbent) tells his story to Margaret (Harriet Walter).

The Sense of an Ending is out in UK cinemas 14 April.

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