"I'm a great believer in time's revenge." The words are spoken late in "The Sense of an Ending," though it might be just as accurate to say that they are spoken early.
In the grand, somewhat dubious tradition of movies where the wounds of the past bleed heavily into the present, this genteel British puzzle-box of a movie leaps deftly back and forth in time, bridging the gap between an old man's present-day existence and his lively 1960s school days.
The older version of Tony Webster (an excellent Jim Broadbent) has lived a mostly quiet, ordinary life. He spends most of his days behind the counter of a small vintage camera shop, when he's not testing the patience of his loyal ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter), and their tough-minded daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), who is about to give birth to her first child.
But one day Tony receives word of the death of an older acquaintance, Sarah Ford, who has unexpectedly bequeathed to him a relic from the past — one that Veronica Ford, Sarah's daughter and Tony's former girlfriend, refuses to surrender. The legal and emotional complications that ensue trigger a sudden flood of painful and overwhelming memories, implicating Tony anew in a tragedy that he has never come to terms with. (The younger version of Tony is played with fresh-faced, ginger-headed appeal by Billy Howle.)
The notion of time's revenge is thus easy enough to decipher, even as it carries with it a secondary interpretation that the filmmakers probably didn't intend. No artistic medium can manipulate time more quickly or adroitly than cinema, but that ease of movement, if not properly earned or motivated, can quickly turn cheap and facile — a triumph of match cuts over meaning. And "The Sense of an Ending," despite its polished construction and immaculate pedigree, doesn't ultimately mean as much as it thinks it does.
Directed by Ritesh Batra ("The Lunchbox") from a screenplay by Nick Payne, the film offers a skillful and elegant dilution of Julian Barnes' 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, which had the patience and tonal assurance to tell its two-part story from start to finish. Batra and Payne, in the interests of delivering a film that is both visually varied and rhythmically interesting, have little recourse but to play chronological hopscotch, a strategy that winds up calling undue attention to its own cleverness: Every dramatic payoff is applauded, every thematic echo vigorously underlined.
You can't entirely begrudge "The Sense of an Ending" its self-satisfaction. Like the secondhand Leica cameras Tony sells in his shop, it's a charming and meticulous piece of engineering. The evocation of Tony's youth, a period of amusing academic mischief and (up to a point) carefree romantic ardor, is transporting enough, even if it falls short of the novel's intellectual playfulness and intensity of feeling.
The dialogue purrs along elegantly, spoken by some of the finest British actors working today, who are all good at infusing even their more artificial moments with a rich suggestion of inner life. This is true even when some of the performers — chiefly Matthew Goode as Tony's coolly exasperated history teacher and Emily Mortimer as a young, fetching version of Sarah — seem bizarrely overqualified for their roles.
A more satisfying match of actor and role is achieved by Charlotte Rampling, bringing her usual steely self-possession to bear on Veronica, who makes a startling return to Tony's life after a decades-long silence. She's played in flashback by the suitably bewitching Freya Mevor, while Joe Alwyn, the underrated young star of "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," makes a superb impression as Adrian Finn, a brooding, philosophizing student who turned Tony and Veronica's relationship into a triangle.
But the movie is ultimately Broadbent's showcase, and he shoulders the dramatic burden with sly, curmudgeonly expertise. He wisely doesn't soft-pedal the fact that, even before his dark secret comes tumbling out, Tony Webster seems like a pretty lousy fellow: monstrously self-absorbed, indifferent to the feelings of others, and prone to fits of impulsive, irrational behavior.
And the lingering frustration of "The Sense of an Ending," apart from its overly mechanical plotting, is that it finally seems content to coddle and indulge Tony more than it challenges him. There's a whiff of Ian McEwan's "Atonement" to Barnes' story, which similarly deals with the consequences of an ill-advised act of youthful spite, the difficulty of making amends, and above all the tidy, comforting narratives we spin for ourselves in an attempt to supply clarity, meaning and closure where none exists.
These themes are all present and accounted for in the film, but they are also more emphatically stated than deeply felt. Tony's guilt and anguish are resolved in a sudden welter of reassuring music and equally reassuring voice-over. You sense the ending coming a long way off, but catharsis remains out of reach.
'The Sense of an Ending'
Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Cinemas, Hollywood; the Landmark Theatre, West Los Angeles