This is an absorbing slice of subtle, literary film-making. (Review: Patrick Compton - 8/10)
Julian Barnes’s 2011 Man Booker prize-winner – a mystery concerning memory and morality – has received an intelligent adaptation from BBC films in the shape of Indian director Ritesh Batra and playwright/scriptwriter Nick Payne. In particular, it gets a slew of top-notch performances, starting with Jim Broadbent in the central role of a closed-in, grumpy old man whose distant past comes back to haunt him.
The novel uses Broadbent’s character, Tony Webster, as an unreliable narrator whose memories of his past are self-edited to suit him and deceive the reader until the truth is shockingly revealed. The film is not able to replicate this in precisely the same way, but the effect is the same.
The movie begins by introducing us to the ageing Tony who runs a small camera shop in London. He spends much of his time alone, occasionally seeing his ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery). He’s an awkward, chilly, private man.
Then, out of the mists of the distant past, he receives a lawyer’s letter saying he is the beneficiary of a sum of money from the estate of Veronica’s mother, as well as the diary of an old school friend who committed suicide many years before. Why has this happened?
The key to the film, and the novel, is the notion of history. We get a sense of public history early on when Tony recalls his schooldays, and his first meeting with Adrian (Joe Alwyn), a young man who will play an important, ultimately tragic role in his life.
Asked in class for his definition of history, Tony replies with easy cynicism that it’s the “lies of the victors”. The history master replies that the “self-delusions of the defeated” must also be taken into account. Adrian’s verdict, on the other hand, is that “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”.
These remarks may seem unduly academic, particularly for a film, but they are relevant to the theme which concerns the very personal history of a very English man (Tony), whose memories of the past have been organised to give him the least possible discomfort.
The director skilfully weaves the action back and forth in time, between Tony’s school and university days (where he is impressively played by Billy Howle) and the present as he gradually unpeels the layers of what seems to be a rather large narrative onion.
Broadbent’s fine central performance is supplemented by a series of high-quality contributions from a stable of top English actors. In particular, there’s a suggestive, moving cameo from Emily Mortimer as Sarah, Veronica’s mother, who hosts Tony when Veronica brings him home for an awkward weekend to meet her family. She’s only on screen briefly, but the ripples of that weekend resonate throughout the film.
Charlotte Rampling, who makes a late appearance as the present-day Veronica, is a provocatively enigmatic presence as Tony blunders forward in pursuit of the truth.
Having read the book before seeing the film, I would only criticise this otherwise excellent adaptation by saying that it unduly lightens the book’s rather dark ending with suggestions of redemption which Barnes very pointedly withholds in his novel’s grim last words: “There is accumulation. There is responsibility. And beyond these, there is unrest. There is great unrest.” – Patrick Compton
The film is running at Screen 3 at Gateway