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Issue 70 / Ritesh Batra Of 'The Lunchbox' Returns With 'The Sense Of An Ending'

Ritesh Batra Of ‘The Lunchbox’ Returns With ‘The Sense Of An Ending’

Mar 15, 2017

    Ritesh Batra follows his breakout indie romance with this star-studded meditation on aging, the haze of memory and the search for closure.

    Four years ago, Mumbai-born director Ritesh Batra made a downright auspicious debut, arriving at Cannes 2013 with The Lunchbox. The reviews were glowing, and they only shone brighter as the almost-love-story between a widowed accountant (Irrfan Khan) and an unhappily married young housewife (Nimrat Kaur) continued its festival run in Toronto, before heading into wide release.

    There are certainly echoes of The Lunchbox in Batra’s sophomore effort, The Sense Of An Ending — also hailed as a quiet, tender film that deals in melancholy, regret and the bittersweet march of time. Specifically, it relates the story of Tony Webster, a British retiree who reflects on the relationships of his youth — including his friendship with the precocious new kid in school and a romance with a girl named Veronica. Both ended painfully. But when fate unexpectedly brings the 60-something Tony and Veronica together again, he’s forced to interrogate those memories, to question long-held certainties, to reexamine the life he’s led and the one he failed to lead.

    Ritesh Batra The Sense Of An Ending
    Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) compels Tony (Jim Broadbent) to look back on their youth with fresh eyes. Photo Credit: Elevation Pictures

    The Sense Of An Ending is certainly a more ambitious endeavour — a story based on an award-winning novel defined by the perceptions of an unreliable narrator struggling to reconcile reality with his own imperfect memory; a story brought to life by a sprawling ensemble packed with revered, award-winning actors like Jim Broadbent (as present-day Tony), Charlotte Rampling (as present-day Veronica), Harriet Walter, Emily Mortimer and Downton Abbey alums Michelle Dockery and Matthew Goode.

    But for Ritesh Batra, it was a challenge worth accepting, given his own passion for Julian Barnes’ stirring, quietly profound novel. “It’s a brilliant book,” Batra tells ANOKHI. “What really struck me about it was that it’s a really unique and profound quest. ‘Sense of an ending’ could have many meanings. But it’s about this whole quest for closure, and really what it comes to is that nobody has closure for anything in life. And yet this character is looking for something he cannot have. And I found that very interesting. I’d never seen a movie about that, about a man looking for a sense of an ending about a chapter in his life.”

    Ritesh Batra The Sense Of An Ending
    Harriet Walter as Tony’s ex-wife and confidante, Margaret. Photo Credit: Elevation Pictures

    It’s also a story of how life changes us and passes us by, without us even knowing it — the kind of story that, in print and on film, made Batra appreciate how “people evolve over large swathes of time. The Lunchbox was set over a few weeks and months, but this story really is set over 50 years. I learned to appreciate what the marathon of life can do to a human being.”

    “When we are young — really young — we don’t know who we are and we are posing,” the director continues. “And the younger Tony is a bit of a charlatan for that reason. That to me was really the essence of who Tony was when he’s young, and he doesn’t travel a big distance in his life. But when you see the young Veronica, it’s someone who’s full of hope, and her life could’ve been anything. But she goes through so much that, when Charlotte Rampling comes onscreen, you see a big distance has been travelled, that Veronica has gone through tragedy, she’s gone through a lot. And Charlotte just brings that to the part in the present. So the distance from the young Veronica [played by Freya Mavor] to the old Veronica is large, but the distance between the young Tony and the old Tony is not very large.”

    Ritesh Batra The Sense Of An Ending
    Director Ritesh Batra had free reign to make The Sense Of An Ending his own. Photo Credit: Robert Vglasky

    Part of the challenge in adapting this or any work of literature is the fundamental difference in telling a story in prose versus telling one on the screen, of honing in on the essence of the source material while altering it to function in a new medium. Fortunately, in an early meeting with the author, Batra and screenwriter Nick Payne were given “full license” by Barnes to “go ahead and betray me.”

    “Did we succeed 100 per cent? I don’t know; I will never know, but the beauty of great literature is that it speaks to everybody in a different and personal way,” Batra ponders. “And all one can do when adapting a book is convey the way it spoke to me personally.”

    A key component of success would be casting — which is always the case. But here, for every role the filmmakers cast, they also needed to find a younger mirror image.

    Ritesh Batra The Sense Of An Ending
    Even after all these years, Tony (Jim Broadbent) is very much the boy he was. Photo Credit: CBS Films

    “Something that I realized was that we can’t be looking for lookalikes. We can’t be looking for a younger person that’s a lookalike of Jim [Broadbent],” Batra explains. “We have to find someone who really gets the part of a young Tony. So when you see the young Tony and you see the old Tony, they should feel like they’re the same person.”

    In that case, the actor turned out to be young Billy Howle, who, in conversations with the director, demonstrated a keen understanding of Tony’s “charlatan” younger days. Howle is a relative newcomer, especially when compared to the Oscar-winning names who headline this production, and that mix of rookies and veterans proved to be one of the more rewarding aspects of the film for the director.

    “It was a very interesting puzzle, the casting of this movie,” reflects Batra, “because you have such great actors who have had tremendous careers and varied careers, like Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent and Harriet Walter, and then you have actors who are really amazing young actors like Emily Mortimer and Michelle Dockery and then you have actors who have never been in a movie, the actors who play the young parts. So that’s what was very exciting for me — working with a whole range of people and having very close and deep collaborations with every one of them.”

    Ritesh Batra The Sense Of An Ending
    Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery has a small role as Tony’s daughter Susie, who’s in the process of having a baby on her own. Photo Credit: CBS Films

    Apparently, the feeling was mutual; in interviews conducted for the film’s promotional materials, the cast had plenty of kind words for the man who was guiding them on this journey.

    “Caring, very precise and very detailed, watching every shot and every moment of the action,” Broadbent said, summarizing Batra’s on-set approach. “It’s a comfort as an actor to have someone taking that degree of care. You feel in safe hands.”

    Added Rampling: “He likes a long time for takes, a long time to explore each scene. He makes absolutely sure that his actors are getting as much as they can out of each moment, encouraging us to probe deeper and come up with surprises. He likes to let us loose and follow us quietly with his ‘watchful’ eye.”

    Ritesh Batra The Sense Of An Ending
    Jim Broadbent and Ritesh Batra talk through a scene. Photo Credit: Robert Vglasky

    That kind of working relationship was essential, since having the actors (both old and young) perfectly calibrated was essential for weaving together the film’s two time periods.

    “It was like nothing else that I think I have ever done or will ever do, because to be honest, it was not a very high-budget movie,” Ritesh Batra explains. “So we were shooting the past scenes on the weekends, and during the week we were shooting the present scenes. What a challenge to toggle between both periods in a single week, every week. And we’re really trying to connect these two worlds. The editor is sitting next to me [and] we are leaving for long periods of flashbacks with the younger actors; we are going away for five minutes, 10 minutes. We come back to present and you still want the audience to be engaged in Jim Broadbent’s quest. How do you do that? That was really an interesting challenge.”

    The theatrical poster for Ritesh Batra's The Sense of an Ending. Photo Credit: CBS Films
    The theatrical poster for Ritesh Batra’s The Sense of an Ending. Photo Credit: CBS Films

    But as much as this film may have required a unique balancing act, ultimately the key to telling the story was the same as it was for The Lunchbox and as it will be for the next one Batra decides to take on: emotional honesty and a focus on small, authentic human moments.

    “I just think that it’s always better to trust the audience, rather than not trust them,” Ritesh Batra explains. “And I feel like every moment should be true rather than try and manipulate people, because that’s the difference between something that’s true and something that’s just sentimental and melodramatic. I think that’s the death of a movie, when it becomes too sentimental or melodramatic. You always want to be able to trust an audience when telling a story and keep every moment true so that they can bring themselves to it.”

    After opening in New York and L.A. last week, The Sense Of An Ending, directed by Ritesh Batra, gets a wide theatrical release starting Friday, March 17.

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

      Matthew Currie

      Matthew Currie

        Author

        Having gotten his start with Anokhi Media as an intern in 2009, Matthew Currie was honoured to accept a position as the magazine’s Arts & Entertainment editor earlier this year. A graduate of the Professional Writing program at York University, he’s spent the past four years working as a fre...

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