Di­rec­tor Ritesh Ba­tra on lone­li­ness, Bri­tish re­serve, and am­bi­gu­ity

The Washington Post Sunday - - MOVIES - BY MICHAEL O'SUL­LI­VAN michael.osul­li­van@wash­post.com The Sense of an End­ing (PG-13, 108 min­utes). Opens March 17 at area the­aters.

Ritesh Ba­tra isn’t a house­hold name — just yet.

The In­dian-born di­rec­tor burst onto the scene in 2013 with his de­but fea­ture “The Lunch­box,” a ro­man­tic drama about a lonely, mid­dle-aged In­dian wid­ower who de­vel­ops a re­la­tion­ship, via let­ters, with the young, un­hap­pily mar­ried woman who pre­pares his lunch ev­ery day, de­liv­ered through an elab­o­rate sys­tem of couri­ers, called dab­bawalas. The movie won Ba­tra a prize at Cannes and went on to be­come an art­house hit. Of­fers to di­rect started pour­ing in, which led to the film­maker’s lat­est project: a high-pro­file adap­ta­tion of Ju­lian Barnes’s Man Booker Prize-win­ning novel, “The Sense of an End­ing.”

Writ­ten for the screen by play­wright Nick Payne (“The Art of Dy­ing”), the film cen­ters on an English cam­era-shop owner named Tony (Jim Broad­bent), who is jogged out of his com­pla­cent life­style by a let­ter an­nounc­ing the death of an old ac­quain­tance who has be­queathed to him a mys­te­ri­ous di­ary. This stirs up old mem­o­ries of Tony’s for­mer flame, Veron­ica (Char­lotte Ram­pling), and their back­story — which in­volves a star­tling se­cret — un­spools through a com­bi­na­tion of present-day en­coun­ters and flash­backs.

The 37-year-old Ba­tra, who is putting the fin­ish­ing touches on his third fea­ture, the forth­com­ing Net­flix drama “Our Souls at Night” star­ring Robert Red­ford and Jane Fonda, phoned from New York to talk about be­gin­nings and end­ings. Q: “The Sense of an End­ing” leaves an ex­quis­ite am­bi­gu­ity as to the res­o­lu­tion of its mys­tery. With­out re­veal­ing spoil­ers, can you talk about how you han­dled the book’s cen­tral enigma? A: When I picked up the book, which I loved, 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. From an act­ing stand­point, in or­der to ground the per­for­mances, you have to play some­thing spe­cific. The work of pre­serv­ing am­bi­gu­ity is not gloss­ing over some­thing. It’s ac­tu­ally delv­ing deeply into it. Q: Am­bi­gu­ity, then, re­quires more clar­ity, not less? A: That’s a much bet­ter way to put it. Q: “The Lunch­box” also had some­thing of an un­re­solved end­ing. What’s the ap­peal of leav­ing things hang­ing? A: I don’t know if that does ap­peal to me so much. When I was mak­ing “Lunch­box,” I wrote on the first page of the script, “Less is more.” I un­der­lined it. The crew and the ac­tors would make fun of me: “Here comes less-is-more.” It be­came a run­ning joke. But I don’t want to say that am­bi­gu­ity is my forte. We live in an age when peo­ple are see­ing every­thing. They don’t want to feel things. They want to see things. When you’re di­rect­ing or writ­ing some­thing, or even edit­ing it — edit­ing is like rewrit­ing — you’ve got to be very con­scious about “What do I want peo­ple to feel here?” Not “What do I want peo­ple to see?” Q: And what is it that you want peo­ple to feel here, with “The Sense of an End­ing”? A: The feel­ing I got when I read the book, and when I was mak­ing the movie — I just felt that every­thing ends badly, in­vari­ably. Youth goes away. We love peo­ple and then they leave us. That’s the whole point. Noth­ing has a happy end­ing. But it’s still a gift to be here. That ques­tion — Why is it a gift to be here? Why don’t more peo­ple com­mit sui­cide? — that is the co­nun­drum of life. Nick and I were just try­ing to present that ques­tion, all the time. Q: Does “The Sense of an End­ing” a theme of hu­man con­nec­tion — or dis­con­nec­tion — with “The Lunch­box”? A: I don't think about the threads a lot, be­tween those two films, or be­tween them and this third movie. Maybe there’s some­thing there about ur­ban lone­li­ness. Maybe I’m lonely. I wish I could give you a smart an­swer. Q: You’ve said that adapt­ing the book turned out to be a big­ger chal­lenge than you ex­pected. How so? A: Ju­lian was very gen­er­ous. When I met him the first time, he said, “Go ahead and be­tray me.” I was think­ing about what that means. It also means, “Don’t dis­ap­point me.” It means, “Don’t just take my book and make it into a movie. Do some­thing with it.” Those are great march­ing or­ders to have from a writer. Q: Did that give you a kind of li­cense? A: Ab­so­lutely. The hard­est thing about adapt­ing it was that the book is ba­si­cally one man’s in­te­rior mono­logue, with an au­di­ence. We fleshed out cer­tain re­la­tion­ships, with Tony’s ex-wife, for in­stance. We cre­ated a re­la­tion­ship with Tony’s daugh­ter, out of air, to frame the story with. The book has a Part 1, set in the past, and a Part 2, set in the present. We sub­sumed Part 1 within Part 2, cre­at­ing the struc­ture of the film in the edit­ing.

In the cast­ing, we were look­ing for the best ac­tor, not the best re­sem­blance. The ac­tor Billy Howle, for in­stance, who plays the young Tony — he looks noth­ing like the young Jim Broad­bent. But he took upon him­self some of Jim’s man­ner­isms and quirks. Q: Char­lotte’s per­for­mance re­minds me of her Os­carnom­i­nated role in “45 Years,” an­other film about an old cou­ple and the emer­gence of a long­share buried se­cret. Do you see sim­i­lar­i­ties? A: I ac­tu­ally al­ways wanted to see that movie, be­cause I’m good friends with the pro­ducer. But I try to avoid see­ing my ac­tors in other films when I’m work­ing. I wanted to see Char­lotte as Veron­ica. Q: Were you caught off guard by the suc­cess of “The Lunch­box”? A: Maybe I haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced a whole lot of it, but I think that’s the na­ture of suc­cess. If it doesn’t catch you off guard, then there’s some­thing wrong with you. “The Lunch­box” was a very small movie, very dif­fi­cult, sewn to­gether with Euro­pean gov­ern­ment funds, grants from Ger­many and France, a lit­tle eq­uity from In­dia and a lot of do­nated time from peo­ple in Amer­ica. I had spent a lot of my 20s try­ing to get a movie made that never got made, but I made a lot of re­la­tion­ships through that process. Ba­si­cally, ev­ery friend I had in the world con­trib­uted some­thing to “The Lunch­box.”

The movie played at Crit­ics Week at Cannes, and it ex­ploded from there. I re­mem­ber shoot­ing “Our Souls at Night” last Septem­ber, in Florence, Colorado, a small town of 3,800 peo­ple with one cin­ema, and peo­ple there told me they had seen “The Lunch­box.” That’s crazy. It’s a town with a su­per­max prison, and not much else. Q: You’ve de­scribed “The Lunch­box” as a very In­dian story. Is there some­thing es­pe­cially English about “The Sense of an End­ing,” per­haps in its char­ac­ters’ Bri­tish re­serve — the way they leave things un­said? A: Yes. It took me awhile to un­der­stand Bri­tish re­serve. I was used to be­ing in Bom­bay, or New York or Mex­ico City, where peo­ple talk more di­rectly. Dur­ing pre­pro­duc­tion, I would tell the crew, “I would like you to do this,” and they would an­swer, “That will be slightly dif­fi­cult.” If it’s only slightly dif­fi­cult, then let’s do it. I come back a week later, and it’s not done. Well, it turns out that “slightly dif­fi­cult” means that it’s im­pos­si­ble. You’d hear them say­ing, “The di­rec­tor is a real a-----.” Once you get to un­der­stand Bri­tish re­serve, it’s en­dear­ing. Q: You were re­cently named one of “10 Direc­tors to Watch” by Va­ri­ety, along with Barry Jenk­ins of “Moon­light” and other ris­ing stars. Is the pres­sure on now? A: I take it in stride. What else can you do? This is not an easy job, in many ways. It’s a real priv­i­lege to be do­ing this — telling peo­ple what you want and try­ing to get it out of them. It doesn’t get any bet­ter than that. But it also doesn’t get eas­ier be­cause of an honor.

ROBERT VI­GLASKY/CBS FILMS

Jim Broad­bent and Har­riet Wal­ter in “The Sense of an End­ing,” di­rected by Ritesh Ba­tra, whose de­but fea­ture “The Lunch­box” won a prize at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val and be­came an art-house hit.

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