Tuesday, 25 April 2017

There are great films about ageing but this isn't one

Jenny is underwhelmed by The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes’ very short book left me underwhelmed in 2011, wondering why it had won the Booker prize, and Ritesh Batra's film of the book has left me even more so. What happens? Nothing much, though the little that does happen seems intended to be have tremendous meaning.

Image resultTony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is a prosperous ageing man who potters about repairing and selling vintage cameras. He has been a bystander in his own life where his short temper, charmless indifference to others and lack of emotional intelligence have probably lost him his marriage. His only daughter is about to give birth and he also risks losing connection with her. Then he gets a letter which sets him on a quest – to do what exactly? Discover himself? Find out what he has resolutely ignored for so many years? Get redemption? His former girlfriend Veronica (Charlotte Rampling, whose stare could freeze a thousand ex boyfriends) and his former wife (Harriet Walter) do their best to treat him with the impatience he deserves.

The film’s attempts at a final twist are undermined by its conformity to the late film critic Roger Ebert’s Rule of Economy of Characters. This is the one where an underdeveloped character who seems extraneous to the plot turns out to be essential to it, so any experienced movie-goer will guess the drifty non-ending long before it happens.

I don’t think we do films about ageing at all well in the UK. The films pass the time pleasantly enough and are then instantly forgettable. For instance, there’s cute-and-quirky (Best Marigold Hotel), embarrassing (Venus: Peter O’Toole getting over-personal with a young woman) sentimental (Quartet: old thesps do their thing), suppressed melodrama (45 Years) or just dull (Another Year).  Where casting is concerned, there seems to be a serious lack of imagination. The same small group of actors comes round again and again:

‘Shall we cast Bill this time so that he can do his full Nighy, or maybe give Tom W another go?’
‘Nah, let’s stick to good old Jim.’

Jim Broadbent does his best with the leading part here, though somehow he seems too twinkly and whimsical to be convincing as the curmudgeonly Tony. Now that a few days have passed, I find it hard to remember how this performance was all that different from what he did as Nick in Le Weekend, John in Iris, Father Flood in Brooklyn or Tom in Another Year.

It is possible to make enthralling films about older people without patronizing or stereotyping. Alexander Payne has done it at least twice with About Schmidt and Nebraska. Both these films also feature disastrously unaware and unlikeable ageing men and have you squirming with pity, fervently hoping that you don’t recognise yourself in their dilemmas - and smiling. Clint Eastwood did it in his gripping Gran Torino. Michael Haneke brought his merciless eye to Amour. Nor does such a film have to be either grim or sentimental: Iñárritu’s Birdman (Michael Keaton plays an ageing actor who is desperate to reprise his fame as a superhero) was to me one of the funniest films of 2014. 

The film industry has grasped that there are large numbers of baby-boomers who like cinema and who might enjoy seeing their own age group on screen. But producers need to do better than The Sense of an Ending. No one in the sparsely populated Islington Vue audience seemed to be under sixty but we all filed out silently with what looked to me like pretty doleful faces.

and Joe remembers the Booker Prize gossip  

I haven’t seen the film and can’t remember much about the book. But I do remember the apparent randomness of the Man Booker Prize judging process the year it won. First the short list put the cat among the pigeons by dissing a bunch of recognised heavyweight authors, who had published that year, in favour of unknowns and novices. Of the six authors on the list, only Julian Barnes had a track record.

This seemed bold and refreshing until the chair, a retired spy, and another of the judges, an MP, expressed their preferences for “readable” books that “zipped along” – arbitrary criteria, surely, for a literary prize. Cue howls of protest from those who felt that zippy readable books were already sufficiently rewarded by profitable book sales. 

Two separate kinds of objection – the principled one that the winner should be a book of serious literary merit, and the personal one that Marty, let’s say, or Ian or Salman shouldn’t be pushed out by some writer we’d never heard of – inevitably got muddled in the press reports. When the judges finally settled on The Sense of an Ending, a relatively insubstantial book, it felt, rightly or wrongly, as though the judges had been cowed by the old boys’ club. 

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