“The Sense of an Ending” is a twisty tale of time and memory that owes most of its compelling nature to Jim Broadbent.

Why wouldn’t it? Broadbent is a terrific actor, always good in everything he does. Can an Oscar-winning actor with a resume as impressive as his still be considered underrated?

I’d say yes, and while “A Sense of an Ending” isn’t big or great enough to bring a lot more praise his way, probably, at least it checks in as another dependably outstanding performance. Every little bit helps.

The movie, directed by Ritesh Batra, is based on the Julian Barnes novel, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2011. Broadbent plays Tony, a divorced man living in London, where he routinely wakes, makes breakfast for himself and heads to the tiny camera shop he owns, in which he sells only refurbished Leica cameras. Business is not, as you would imagine, booming, but he gets by comfortably.

He also meets for lunch with his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter), the two of them engaging in witty but sometimes cutting banter; you get the idea they’re a lot happier as friends than they were as spouses. They also have a daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), who is pregnant, about to give birth.

Tony is puttering along in life, content with his lot, if a little on the grumpy side. And then he gets a letter, in which he learns that Sarah, the mother of his first love Veronica, has died and left him a diary. But Veronica won’t let him have it.

This triggers memories (and flashbacks) of Tony’s youth, and of the love triangle he was involved in, with Veronica (played by Freya Mavor as a young woman) and his best friend Adrian (Joe Alwyn). (Billy Howle plays the young Tony.) There are far-reaching consequences, as Tony begins to remember.

But are the memories accurate, or just Tony’s selective version of events? That’s what Batra plays with, going back and forth in time between the 1960s of Tony’s youth and his present. How real are our memories, and how much do we re-create them in order to make peace with them, and with ourselves?

As bits and pieces fall into place, it’s clear that Tony’s is not the most accurate representation of what transpired; a meeting, after decades, with the adult Veronica (played in a powerful small role by Charlotte Rampling as an impenetrable wall of icy indifference to Tony’s needs, a position shaped by tragedy) really drives this home.

The story plays as a mystery, but that’s the least-satisfying aspect of it. What’s better is not what happens – and what happened – so much as Tony’s reaction to his slowly growing realization of his role in events long ago.

Of course the reason that’s better is because of Broadbent’s performance. Tony is not just a charming old gent tottering through life. Not anymore. Yet the more we learn about Tony and his past, the more compelling Broadbent’s portrayal becomes. Nick Payne’s screenplay doesn’t always live up to Broadbent’s talents. But the actor never disappoints, and “The Sense of an Ending” is so much better as a result.

Bill Goodykoontz, USA TODAY Network


CBS Films presents a film directed by Ritesh Batra and written by Nick Payne, based on the novel by Julian Barnes. Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements, a violent image, sexuality and brief strong language). Running time: 108 minutes. Opens Friday at local theaters.