Director Ritesh Batra (“The Lunchbox” (2013)) carved out some time to chat with the Phoenix Film Festival about his new movie, “The Sense of an Ending” starring Jim Broadbent and Charlotte Rampling. In this intriguing character study – based upon the novel by Julian Barnes - Tony (Broadbent) discovers that an acquaintance from long ago passed away. This stirs up memories and feelings that he had not actively reflected upon in years, but are his recollections completely accurate or just his version(s) of history?
During our insightful discussion, Mr. Batra describes a key difference between the film and novel, expands on some of the story’s themes and mentions that a positive experience with his grandfather ties to the movie in a small way.
“The Sense of an Ending” opens on Friday, March 17.
PFF: “The Sense of an Ending” deals with our own versions of the past that may not quite add up to actual history. Do you think that imperfect memories are just a flaw of being human, or do we deliberately alter them to protect ourselves?
RB: If I had the answer to that question, my life would be a lot easier (laughing).
I spoke a lot about this - before we made the movie - with Jim Broadbent. Did Tony conveniently forget, or did he choose to forget? It is important that the movie walks that line. In the book, it clearly states that he forgot (about his past). Tony is the first-person narrator, and we take his word for it. We don’t have a choice. That’s the power of literature, but in a movie, you are watching (him) on screen.
A movie can (place) you in someone else’s shoes and in someone else’s head, to some degree. As an audience member, you (can) really question whether he forgot or conveniently forgot. That’s a good line to walk, and that’s what is exciting about this project: to find lines to walk on and stay on them, so the audience can ask questions.
I’m glad that you asked that question, but I don’t know even if the Dalai Lama has the answer.
PFF: One of the nicest moments in the film is when Tony treats the delivery man nicer than he did earlier in the picture. What’s happening to Tony here? By reflecting upon his life, is he trying to capture moments of humanity in his present?
RB: In the editing room, the editor and I would talk about these things all the time. What’s happening to Tony? I feel like once a movie is (made and) out there, it belongs to you, and what you see in it. If that’s what you see, yes, of course, I agree with you. That’s exactly what’s happening. If (someone) can see and feel the truth in a movie, and there’s no false note in it, that’s all that one can hope for.
Tony is in a hurry in the morning (during the earlier scene), and the movie is so much about time. As we grow older, time goes faster and faster. I had the real privilege of growing up with my grandad. We shared a room during the first 18 years of my life and the last 18 of his. When I was a teenager, it was a real pain sometimes, but now I feel like it was a real gift. I could see - as my grandfather grew older and older - that he tried to slow down time (to appreciate it). I didn’t understand it at the time, but I do now.
PFF: Is it fun shooting scenes from the 1960s with the fashions and music of the period, or is it stressful because something from 2017 might accidentally appear in the film?
RB: (Laughing) We had a lot of fun shooting those scenes and had a great team around us committed to the truth of the era. Yes, of course, when you are shooting on location, you (spend a lot of effort) capturing the order of the period and how it works, but that’s part of the fun too.
PFF: Veronica (Rampling) can appear as a “cool customer”. Do you think that her memories of Tony are not entirely based in reality? She appears to treat him more harshly than she should, or is this just the way that she is?
RB: Tony has not traveled a great distance in terms of experiencing the tragedies and the ups and downs of life. The actors playing Tony – Billy Howle (in the 1960s) and Jim Broadbent (in present day) – feel like the same person, and that’s important to the story.
On the other hand, (there is a difference between the) younger Veronica (Freya Mavor) and the older Veronica (Rampling). When you see Charlotte on screen, Veronica is someone who has lived a full life, a full and real human life, full of pain and sorrow and humor and ups and downs and everything else. The difference between the younger Veronica and the older Veronica is great, and the story tells you the reasons why.
We were really lucky that we signed the actors that we did.
PFF: Tony owns a camera shop, and his first love, Veronica, introduced him to his first camera. Do you think that Tony works in the camera business as a way to hold onto his first love, because the love itself is no longer present?
RB: I think that’s a fine interpretation. Who knows, maybe Veronica will walk into his camera shop one day, and maybe Tony doesn’t even know (that) he hopes for that.
PFF: The film’s first 20 minutes kept me off-balance. Tony receives a letter, and a few names of unfamiliar characters were quickly spoken. Were you trying to keep the audience off-balance, just like the wrench that was thrown into Tony’s life?
RB: Absolutely. The book unfolds differently. In Part I, it’s all about Tony’s younger years, and Part II is about Tony’s older years. The movie doesn’t have the luxury of chapters, so it was a good opportunity to use the tropes of thrillers and use them differently to tell a character-driven story. We were all excited (for) that opportunity.
PFF: Did Tony need the revelations of the movie to improve upon his present, or could he have gotten along fine without knowing or correctly remembering the truth?
RB: It depends upon what your definition of “fine” is. What’s very captivating to me about this material is Tony is searching for “the sense of an ending”. You can call it whatever you want, but it is a sense of closure, and do we really have it (during) any chapter in our lives? I look back at my life, and I have not had closure about anything.
One day, the clock is just going to stop, and that’s the extent of closure that we are going to get.
Often times, you read a newspaper (article) about the relatives of a victim who are looking for the body, because they want closure. I hope that they do find that body, but are they ever going to have closure? I don’t think so.
I’m glad that the movie gives thought to your question. It’s a very good question.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.