Two Slices of British Pie: One Touching and Tasty, a Second Nervy and Nasty
‘The Sense of an Ending’
Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” won the Man Booker Prize as the best English-language novel of 2011. It features an unreliable narrator, Tony Webster, who finds a piece of his past interrupting his unremarkable life. Whether such a novel can work as a film is a good question, and the just-released British movie that takes it on makes a decent effort. (Now in theaters, the film is rated PG-13 and runs 108 minutes.)
The film revolves around Tony (Jim Broadbent), an ordinary retiree whose ex-wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) remains a friend and confidante. He is content running a vintage camera shop and is involved in the life of his daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery), a lesbian pregnant with her first child. The arrival of a lawyer's letter triggers a major flashback by informing Tonythat one Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer), the mother of a college lover, Veronica, has bequeathed him some documents including a diary.
The flashbacks – interspersed with present-day scenes – return him to his 1960s school days and his involvement with the intellectually gifted Adrian (Joe Alwyn) and Veronica Ford (Freya Mavor), at whose family home he spends an awkward weekend. During their university days, their relationship ends, and Tony (played by Billy Howle as a young man) receives word from Adrian that he is dating Veronica. Tony replies in a vindictive letter only to learn later that the sensitive young man has committed suicide and left a diary.
Back in the present, Tony wonders if his letter triggered Adrian’s death and seeks to learn what happened to his old flame through Adrian’s diary. He is able to reestablish contact with the older Veronica (played by Charlotte Rampling), but a distance remains between them. His daughter delivers a grandchild, but his attempts to reconnect with Veronica fail, though he does learn a shocking revelation about the Fords.
This most English of material is crafted by Ritesh Barta, an Indian director who tasted commercial success with his first feature made in Mumbai, “The Lunchbox” (2013). Some of that film’s lovingly contained passion is evident in this film, and a calculated underplaying seems right for what is a restrained domestic mystery.
Barnes’ novel, however esteemed, for this reviewer displayed a dry, unsympathetic mood, principally because of its pedestrian narrator. The script of “The Sense of an Ending” by playwright Nick Payne has the benefit of being delivered by a fine ensemble of English actors who give fully rounded life to Barnes’ characters. Some of them are barely used, like Mortimer and Matthew Goode (in a cameo), but especially distinctive is the great Jim Broadbent as Tony.
Unlike the irresolute Tony of Barnes’ novel, Broadbent offers the avuncular presence of a decent chap who tries to do his best with his lot, given what he tries to deal with. Broadbent is so sympathetic an actor that he inevitably lends sympathy to a person trying to find answers about his life. His principal female co-stars, Walter and Rampling, provide him an added dimension as a man either worthy of such sympathy (Margaret) – or not (Veronica).
This movie is an exemplar of what the British might call standard muddling-through. Not flashy but still fulfilling.
For another side of contemporary Great Britain try “T2 Trainspotting,” director Danny Boyle’s update on his four Scottish louts from the original “Trainspotting” (1996). The first film was a wild ride through the Edinburgh underclass and drug scene. Its reputation has grown over the years as a landmark shocker in British cinema for its tawdry subject matter and its disjointed, often frenzied storytelling. It also transformed the careers of its four leads.
Besides Ewan McGregor as Mark Fenton, “Trainspotting” introduced Jonny Lee Miller (as Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson), Ewen Bremner (“Spud” Murphy), and Robert Carlisle (Francis “Franco” Begbie), as respectively a handsome street hustler, an unremitting junkie, and a living temper tantrum. All are longer in the tooth in “T2” but retain their individual natures 20 years on. (The film runs 118 minutes and earns a hard “R” rating.)
Mark has returned home, after 15 years living a semi-normal life in Amsterdam, to deal with the death of his mum. Simon runs a shabby saloon and makes a living off sexual blackmail using a Bulgarian tart, Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova). Spud has lost a wife and family to his habit and contemplates suicide. Franco is doing a 25-year stretch in the slammer and has just been denied parole.
Though Spud, the softest of the original crew, has no bone to pick with Mark, both Simon and Franco – once they learn that Markie’s back in town – want revenge after he ran out on them with £16,000 from a big drug sale. It doesn’t take long for the one-time mates to drift back into each others’ orbit. Mark re-bonds with Spud after saving his life and reconnects with Simon over their boyhood pasts, while furious Franco escapes from prison to get back at Mark.
What people remember from the original “Trainspotting” was its pell-mell pace, with the boys constantly running away from authorities or themselves, getting beaten up, or beating themselves up, often shot in jump cuts accompanied by pounding music. It also became notorious for a wretch-worth toilet scene that few can put out of their mind. Boyle’s anarchic style, which also contained moments of reflection and macho humor, became a model for subsequent tales of wayward British youth.
Boyle, who went on to make films such as “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” here revisits his rollicking style, and there are no surprises when the four lads revert to their old ways, becoming, as one character says, “tourists in their own youth.” They have “grown” little in two decades.
There is some leavening of their coarseness in “T2 Trainspotting”: more family life is depicted, with even out-of-control Franco given some domestic moments with his wife and son, and the Bulgarian is a true wild card, a streetwise young woman who assesses the four as the little boys they are. There are lovely set pieces too, as when Simon and Mark exult over their longtime soccer passions, or when the two demurely suit up to apply for an EU business loan. What doesn’t change is their language. For those with sensitive ears the dialogue is a constant stream of obscenities, a few of which cannot help but be funny. If you want to get down with some Scottish sleaze, this is your picture.
“Land of Mine,” a nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film, is a post-World War II story of young German POWs under Danish command defusing seaside bombs. It is an excellent combination of idyllic and taut: idyllic when showing the gorgeous sweep of the west Danish landscape and intensely taut in scenes when callow youngsters must defuse mines. You anxiously wait for the inevitable explosions that occur, but almost all of them are judiciously handled off camera or at a distance. As the Danish sergeant in command, Roland Moller is very fine, talking tough but gradually softening toward his (pardon the expression) youthful charges.
“Beauty and the Beast” is a Disney conversion of its beloved animated film (from 1991) into a live action fairytale that could have been a disaster, but the new production is a beautifully mounted, handsome one, graced by a bevy of mostly fine British actors, led by a grownup Emma Watson as Belle and a hidden Dan Stevens as the Hairy One. The familiar songs are there, with a few new ones added, and the whole spectacle swirls with abandon and high spirits. Rated PG, it’s okay for kids nine and up.