Twists—especially twists that rely on an anachronistically told story—need to serve a purpose. A twist exists to subvert the audience’s expectations and surprise them into piecing together previously disparate plot information that is at once illuminating and makes sense. The Sense of an Ending is the prime example of how not to craft a twist-based narrative, because it not only breaks some of the fundamental rules of narrative surprise, the twist also barely makes sense within the narrative itself.
Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is an older divorced man, living out his retirement in a peaceful, if somewhat grumpy, contentment. One day, however, he is greeted with a mysterious letter from the mother of an old girlfriend, claiming that she has bequeathed a friend’s diary to him in her passing. When the ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to turn over the diary, Tony consults his attorney ex-wife (Harriet Walter), and recounts his relationship with this ex-girlfriend, her mother, and the friend whose diary somehow found its way into her possession.
What unravels is a supposed plot of intrigue through a series of flashbacks that, quite frankly, are scattershot, often inconsequential, and not nearly as engaging as they are consistently confusing. The details of Tony’s young life are told out of order, supposedly thematically, to reveal his relationships with each of the key players in sequence, but often without any sort of connective reference to his modern-day telling or toward any sort of narrative structure. You won’t ask yourself what the plot is building toward nearly as much as you’ll be wondering just why the hell you’re watching any given scene at that particular moment. As one could imagine, this makes it quite difficult for the film to build the necessary tension for its big twists, but even the twists are bungled in execution.
See, the key to Tony unraveling the ins-and-outs of his past hinges on one very convenient fact: he forgot a vital piece of information that, quite frankly, is so integral to the story that it beleaguers belief. The film is trying to make a point about how we craft our own pasts by telling the best version of it to ourselves, but from a storytelling perspective, all that does is withhold key information from the audience for the sole purpose of providing a twist to a story that doesn’t need it. In fact, The Sense of an Ending seems far less concerned with actually telling a story than it is in creating an excessively convoluted plot, operating under the assumption that a game of narrative keep-away will trick the audience into thinking they saw something profound.
Credit must be given to Broadbent, Rampling, and Walter, all old hands at British theater and cinema whose professionalism elevates their lackluster material, even as their younger counterparts aren’t quite up to the same task. But even they cannot save The Sense of an Ending from its own pretentions, because it’s little more than a paper-thin mystery with only a minimum of lip-service given to character development or engaging story structure. Whether through the fault of the writing or the editing, The Sense of an Ending is an absolute mess.