Inside the Frame: The Sense of an Ending Film Adaptation

The Sense of An Ending Film Adaptation Ritesh Batra Jim Broadbent

“I remember in no particular order:

– a shiny inner wrist;

– steam rising from a wet sink as a hot frying pan is laughingly tossed into it;

– gouts of sperm circling a plughole, before being sluiced down the full length of a tall house;

– a river rushing nonsensically upstream, its wave and wash lit by a half dozen chasing torch beams;

– another river, broad and grey, the direction of its flow disguised by a stiff wind exciting the surface;

– bathwater long gone cold behind a locked door.

The last isn’t something I actually saw, but what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.”

JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending

This opening to Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize winning novel seems to borrow from cinema, its memories frozen in time like pictures. These brief snapshots burst into the present day action of Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending film adaptation. But they are mere fragments of a heavy, nebulous past.

Thoughts and memory might work like visual images, but Batra’s biggest challenge in adapting Barnes’ novel is how to suggest memory’s fallibility – its blurry, faded, half truths – in a medium that presents events as they really are. Barnes’ novel is narrated by Tony, a retiree forced to re-xamine his own life story in the wake of an unexpected legacy from the mother of his difficult first love, Veronica. Over the course of 150 pages, Tony’s willingness to forget past indiscretions frequently collides with their consequences. Barnes novel is a meditation on time, memory and responsibility; a conversation between Tony and the reader. It trades in thought and ideas. So how does Ritesh Batra translate this to sound and images?

In Batra’s hands, The Sense of an Ending becomes an epistolary film. It makes perfect sense that Tony’s cerebral voiceover turns out to be a final letter to old flame Veronica (Charlotte Rampling). Indeed, the letters that fuel the novel’s plot have a constant, almost oppressive presence onscreen. The film even invents a connection between Tony (Jim Broadbent) and the postman (Nick Mohammed) – the epistolary idea working its way into our subconscious through Royal Mail imagery that populates the mise-en-scene.

Flashbacks piece together Tony’s memories of youth and its sexual frustrations. As his thoughts fire, figures from the past appear briefly in his present. Later, as Tony’s surroundings dissolve completely into those of his youth, past and present seem to merge. In this way, Batra depicts Tony stuck in time: his mind consumed with the reconstruction of memory.

Journalist Lili Loofbourow argues, in her analysis for The Week, that Batra encourages us to question Tony’s perception of the past, “by exploiting the differences between the young and old actors.”

“When Tony meets Veronica as an adult, it’s shocking to the viewer: Charlotte Rampling plays Veronica as a woman who has suffered. There is nothing of Freya Mavor’s Young Veronica, a girl whose coolness seems as flirtatious as it is laconic. But Tony sees her differently; he finds her remarkably unchanged. That shows the viewer how distorted Tony’s perceptions really are; where we see a total transformation, he sees the same girl he fell in love with”.

LILI LOOFBOUROW, The Week

In the present – and with the superiority, distance and relief that comes with being an ex-wife – Margaret (Harriet Walter) sees through Tony’s self-delusions and calls him out. Margaret makes plain what is beyond Tony’s own observation, overcoming the limitations of the novel’s unreliable narrator.

“You wanted to hear her say how wonderful you are and how you haven’t changed, how she’s thought of you all these years and looked up at the stars and wondered…

I’m sorry, it’s all a bit pathetic. Do you know what really strikes me is your total inability to see what’s right under your nose. Such as your daughter who happens to be lying next door going out of her mind. ”

MAGARET in The Sense of an Ending film adaptation

The screenplay from Nick Payne expands Tony’s relationship with his pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery), juxtaposing different life stages. A crude device perhaps, but pregnancy is a recurring theme in Barnes’ novel too. Both its suicidal young men – Robson and Adrian – are “afraid of the pram” after getting their girlfriends pregnant. There’s gentle irony in the film’s title – The Sense of an Ending – projected over a school assembly as Batra points to fate, responsibility and the all too brief nature of life itself. Tony’s desire to get out of the school’s holding pen into adulthood, to feel the passionate and tragic emotions written about in great literature, gradually gives way to a comfortable and enduring love for his own daughter and ex-wife.

“In those days we imagined ourselves as being in a holding pen waiting to be released into our lives…

When you are young, you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books. You want them to overturn your life and create a new reality. But as that second hand insists on speeding up and time delivers us all too quickly into middle age and then old age, that’s when you want something a little milder don’t you? You want your emotions to support your life as it has become. You want them to tell that you everything is going to be ok. And is there anything wrong with that?”

TONY, The Sense of an Ending film adaptation

The novel is concerned with this concept of time: our idea of past and future. Barnes draws parallels with our study of history – the corroboration of events through witnesses and documents. Batra weaves in a watch motif.

” We live in time – it holds us and moulds us – but I’ve never thought I understood it very well. Some emotions speed it up, others slow it down; occasionally it seems to go missing – until the eventual point when it really does go missing, never to return.”

JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending

“But if we can’t understand time, can’t grasp its mysteries of pace and progress, what chance do we have with history – even our own small personal, largely undocumented piece of it?”

JULIAN BARNES, The Sense of an Ending

Batra’s film adaptation doesn’t come close to this kind of nuance about our construction of the past. Yet it forms a neat companion to the novel, allowing us to see Tony from outside, in all his complex imperfection, and to feel the weight of his culpability for the tragic events surrounding him.

The Sense of an Ending film adaptation is available to rent and buy on blu-ray and DVD. Julian Barnes’ novel is now available in paperback. It won the Booker prize in 2011.

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, start with these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.

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Inside The Frame: Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice Adaptation

Keira Knightley and Brenda Blethyn Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005

When Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation arrived in cinemas in 2005, it competed for the hearts and minds of an audience still attached to the iconic BBC television series from Andrew Davies and Simon Langton ten years earlier. Their’s was a comprehensive six hour adaptation; but Wright had just over two. Here are some of the ways Joe Wright makes his film adaptation stand out.

“The two BBC versions are seminal — the second one was the most successful BBC drama ever – but we were intent on making a big-screen version, one that doesn’t conform to the television drama stereotypes of a perfect clean Regency world.”

Pride & Prejudice (2005) Producer PAUL WEBSTER

Film requires grander visual scale than television and Wright turns this to his advantage by shooting entirely on location. Many of the novel’s key scenes take place inside where the stuffy interiors provide the backdrop to its examination of class and manners. But Wright transfers them outdoors, where story is communicated by light and weather instead.

Keira Knightley and Matthew MacFadyen in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005

The film opens at dawn. Mist transforms into golden morning light. A new chapter is about to open in Elizabeth’s life: an idea made flesh as she turns the pages of a book. This lighting choice is echoed in the film’s climactic scene, as Lizzy begins a new life with Darcy.

In contrast to this etherial glow, Darcy’s first, unsuccessful, proposal takes place during a cloudburst that’s symbolic of his emotional outpouring and Elizabeth’s impulsive rejection. Heavy rain intensifies the passionate atmosphere and accelerates the pace – Elizabeth arrives at the encounter already drenched and out of breath, her moment of respite abruptly shattered by Darcy’s unwanted intrusion. His romantic ambition doused in cold water, Darcy makes a swift exit.

Keira Knightley in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005

By connecting Elizabeth with the natural environment, Joe Wright seems to borrow from the Brontës. Lizzy is Cathy Earnshaw’s kindred spirit, perfectly at one with the elements. In echoes of William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, she soaks up the views, her coat billowing in the wind.

Lizzy’s spirit cannot be contained.

Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Stanage Edge Derbyshire
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Derbyshire

“Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise.”

JANE AUSTEN, Pride & Prejudice

“To walk three miles, or four miles, or five miles, or whatever it is, above her ankles in dirt, and alone, quite alone! what could she mean by it? It seems to show an abominable sort of conceited independence, a most country town indifference to decorum.”

JANE AUSTEN, Pride & Prejudice

“My goodness, did you see her hem? Six inches deep in mud. She looked positively medieval.”

JOE WRIGHT’S Pride & Prejudice adaptation
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005
Matthew MacFadyen and Kelly Reilly Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005

When Lizzy arrives at neighbouring Netherfield manner for the first time, she brings the outside in. Her relaxed appearance makes stark contrast with the formality of the reception offered by Darcy and Caroline Bingley. Joe Wright takes this connection between Lizzie and nature and suffuses it throughout his entire Pride and Prejudice adaptation.

“I wanted a sense of the elements, of mud and rain. It occurred to me that love is an elemental force, and I wanted to set it in the context of the other elements. It seemed to me that if Elizabeth had a very earthbound existence, then her aspiration for romantic love would be all the more heroic. She’s got her feet in the mud, and she’s reaching for the stars. I think it’s a heroic story.”

JOE WRIGHT speaking to Indiewire

But some Austen fans thought the film’s muddy aesthetic was excessive. Cows, pigs and chickens populate the grounds of the Bennet’s family home. In the opening moments, the camera moves through their chaotic environment. The physical disarray reflects the messy impropriety of Lizzy’s mother and sisters and brings the stiff, museum-like architecture of the aristocratic classes into sharp relief.

Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Mud
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Mud
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Mud
Keira Knightley Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Mud

Joe Wright beats down the formality of the novel and its traditional adaptations. The Bennets are warm and relatable, their emotions barely masked.

“”I believe that when people do period films they are reliant on paintings from the period, because there is no photography. But in a painting, everything is formally composed; it’s not real life. Then they do wide shots to show off the period detail of the sets. I think that the detail is in the small things, like crumbs on a table, or flowers in a vase.”

JOE WRIGHT, speaking to Focus Features

“”We’re proud to say there was absolutely no make-up used on Pride & Prejudice. We would cover any obvious blemishes but otherwise we literally pinched their cheeks and off they went. It was a decision between the director, Joe Wright, and I that make-up should not be seen on camera. I banned hairspray on Pride & Prejudice because it wasn’t invented yet. We got all the girls to grow their eyebrows and nobody wore mascara except for Kelly Reilly, to show the contrast between London’s high society and our country bumpkins.”

Make-up artist FAE HAMMOND speaking to Stylist

“That’s why there are so many closeups. Jane Austen observes people very carefully and closely: so that was the cinematic equivalent of her prose. I like closeups very much indeed. I think studying the human face on that kind of scale is one of the enduring pleasures of film.”

JOW WRIGHT speaking to Indiewire

Vulnerability is the film’s modus operandi. There’s a youthful girlishness to Keira Knightely’s performance that connects her with sillier sisters, Lydia and Kitty, and reveals the emotional consequences of her impulsivity. At times, Lizzie hardly seems to know herself and she is evidently rattled by Darcy’s slights.

The film’s soft light is appropriate for an adaptation that smooths away the characters’ hard edges. Darcy’s transformation is less metamorphosis than blossoming: a gradual loosening of a tightly wound disposition. Matthew MacFadyen plays down Darcy’s snobbery and reveals, through softly spoken dialogue, a general unease in his own skin. The relaxation of his nerves, the calming of his social anxiety, is signalled through a loosening of his wardrobe – a literal unbuttoning that’s reminiscent of Colin Firth’s own iconic wet shirt almost twenty-five years ago.

Matthew MacFadyen in Joe Wright's Pride and Prejudice adaptation 2005 Ending Mist

What did you think of Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice adaptation? Let me know in the comments….

Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice is available to rent digitally and to buy on DVD and Blu-Ray. Find out more at Focus Features.

What to read next…

The Film Version A-Z of Adaptations

What do digital technologies and global audiences mean for adaptation? And what devices can filmmakers use to translate literary stories into cinematic ones? This series explores the most pressing questions in adaptation today, from A-Z.

The Film Version Companion Pieces

Often storytellers make deliberate connections. Sometimes we make our own. We’re reminded of themes, messages and ideas explored elsewhere in other stories, in other art forms. Taken together these stories can communicate something bigger.

If you’re short on time, try these quick reads. Through images and quotations, each post explores a different film adaptation and the devices used to transform its literary story for the screen.