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

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - CONTENTS -

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

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