A tense past
Regret, blame and decades-old romance… Louise Carpenter meets the team putting Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending on film
When the up-and-coming director Ritesh Batra found himself sitting in the sunny back garden of Julian Barnes’ sn or th London home, sip ping tea, eating cake sand discussing how he might make the writer’ s Booker Prize-winning novel The
Sense of an Ending into his second film, he was almost paralysed by a cocktail of disbelief and fear. ‘Oh my God! Oh my God!’ he remembers thinking for three minutes straight. ‘I’m sitting across from Julian Barnes.’
What Bat ra didn’ t realise was that Barnes had been impressed by his debut film, The Lunchbox, which Batra made in India. It tells a story of disappointment and hope involving a woman who, trying to make her husband fall back in love with her by preparing him a delicious lunch box, inadvertently send sit to a stranger who falls for her instead.
The Sense of an Ending moves between past and present, and centres around Tony Webster, a semi-retired man living an unspectacular but comfortable life–he is on good terms with his ex-wife, and their daughter is pregnant with her first child. The past catches up with him in the form of a lawyer’ s letter informing him that he has been left a diary, that of his once-revered school friend Adrian, who committed suicide decades earlier. The bequest comes mysteriously via the will of the recently deceased Sarah Ford, mother of Tony’s university girlfriend, Veronica. Tony’s life starts to unravel as a ‘vile’ letter (as Batra puts it) – written by Tony at university on learning that Veronica and Adrian had started a relationship – comes to light. As a result, Tony is forced tore-examine everything: his youth; his friendship with Adrian, who had enthralled Tony; his treatment of Veronica in their youth; the hate-filled letter he penned; and ultimately there liability of his own memory. Bat ra has assembled an exceptional cast: Jim Broad bent is Tony Webster, and his costars include Charlotte Ramp ling, Harriet Walter, Emily Mortimer, Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode.
Botht he film, adapted by playwright Nick Pay ne, and book are not just about memory and ageing, but disappointment and shame. ‘The story to me is about the things that are unsaid,’ says Batra. ‘And the things that we say that we wish we could take back.’ Who can’t relate to that?
Today, Batra’s crew is preparing for the third scene of a long day of shooting at Micklefield Hall, a grand house on the out skirts of London, complete with a 1960s car, a sweeping drive and a façade covered in wisteria, the lilac tones referenced in the cast’s costumes. It’s a scene in which a young Tony (Billy Howle) goes to the home of a young Veronica (Freya Mavor – Rampling plays her older self ) to meet her parents for t he f irst t ime: Sa ra h, played by Mortimer (whom, fittingly, Barnes remembers as a child, having been a friend of her father, the late John Mortimer), and her husband David, played by James Wilby.
Broadbent is on set preparing for a presentday scene, due to be filmed later on. This switching between decades has been a challenge for the costume department – ‘like working on two films really… jumping in and out, flicking backwards and forwards’, says Nadia Stacey, the hair and make-up designer. ‘It’s like a cuckoo clock,’ adds Mortimer, who refers to her character as ‘brilliantly amoral’.
Broadbent was t he f irst choice for his par t, says producer David Thompson. ‘He is an extraordinarily subtle and delicate actor who implies a lot without doing anything particularly demonstrative.’ Barnes admits that he was thrilled with the casting, not only because Broadbent is ‘brilliant’, but also because ‘it headed off speculation
that[ the book] might be auto biographical ’.
The role, Broadbent says, made him reassess his own past, particularly his time at Leighton Park, a semi-progressive Quak er school in Reading .‘ I wasn’t quite one of those smart, intellectual sixth-formers, but those schoolboy relationships are fairly consistent over the generations, and I certainly recognise him from my own. I also recognise the arrogance and awkwardness of youth. Tony is such a believable, vulnerable, damaged, self-regarding man ,’ he adds. ‘I like him and I like the fact that he is monumentally flawed as well.’
The cameras roll and the young Tony and Veronica climb into the carat the end of their stay. Veronica is dressed in a very subtle take on t he 1960s: ‘ We looked at Freya in her little dress and thought, “She could be dressed in Topshop today,”’ says Odile Dicks-mireaux, the film’ s costume designer .‘ The schoolboys’ look was influenced by pictures of boys in Paris, rather than England.’ Mortimer is styled in a lilac cardigan to match the flowers of Mick le field Hall .‘ We needed to capture the period but not really notice it,’ explains Stacey. Mrs Ford then kisses Tony goodbye and g ives a wave as the car disappears down the drive.
The gesture is restrained and yet there is something girlish and faintly suggestive about this motion at waist height. Batra shoots the scene again and again – and again – looking to capture levels of meaning that seem minuscule even by the accepted shoot and reshoot standards of most directors. When one of the crew whispers, ‘It’s been like this from the beginning,’ you begin to understand why Batra was picked to translate Barnes’s unspoken subtleties.
‘It’s a real labour of love,’ says David Thompson, the producer .‘ It’ s a very intense story and it’s all about the detail of the work, which is why it takes quite a long time to shoot.’
Batra made sure the young actors – particularly Joe Alwyn (Adrian) and Howle – bonded in a way that made their on-screen intensity and repressed competitiveness with each other believable. ‘We improvised a lot of scenes, and it was a great icebreaker,’ How le explains between takes, as he tucks into his lunch. ‘Creating a bond of friendship and making that a tangible thing can be difficult to achieve.’ He then reveals that after lunch he will be shooting the first sex scene of his career, with Mavor. It is the moment when Tony and Veronica finally have sex in her student digs, post breakup. Nervous? He doesn’t appear to be.
Half an hour later, before shooting starts, I am sitting on the bed in said digs, with Broadbent in a chair beside me. It’s an odd experience, all the more so because the precision of the decor – down to Veronica’s 1960s posters, records and bohemian nicknacks and books – makes it all feel very real.
Although Julian Barnes has remained handsoff during the adaptation process, he has visited the set of the film four times, each at a different location around London .‘ It has been unusually convivial,’ he says. He wanted to make the tiniest of cameos, so Batra has him doing a crossword in a bar scene. ‘When I arrived, my agent and assistant wanted to come too,’ Barnes remembers, ‘and so we were all in the scene, at the bar getting drinks… and the idea was that the camera pulled away to show me doing the crossword.’
Bat ra is nervous about the film’ s reception, despite the fact that it is already garnering a lot of international interest. He attributes the nerves in part to his mother – he tells me that when he showed her the first cut of The Lunch
box, she cried ,‘ But nothing is happening in this movie!’ He laughs .‘ There might be nothing happening in this movie – but I hope it’s in a good way.’ The Sense of an Ending is out on 14 April
Below Filming outside Tony’s house
Left Broadbent and Harriet Walker, who plays Tony’s ex-wife, Margaret, on set with director Ritesh Batra
Above Billy Howle as Tony, with Freya Mavor as a young Veronica
Broadbent with Michelle Dockery, who plays Tony’s daughter, Susie Right