Posts Tagged ‘Ritesh Batra’

One of the incidental pleasures of life as a pathological movie-goer is that you become intimately familiar with censor-speak: that is, those extra remarks which the BBFC append to a film’s certificate explaining why it’s been given the rating that it has. ‘Injury detail,’ for instance, ‘strong violence’, ‘moderate sex scenes’ (this is moderate on a spectrum running from ‘mild’ to ‘strong’, not ‘disappointing’ to ‘outstanding’, naturally). I was a little surprised, therefore, when the certificate for Ritesh Batra’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending limited itself to a simple ‘only suitable for viewers 15 and older’. A metropolitan BBC drama with a bit of a period element and proper actors like Jim Broadbent, Harriet Walter and Charlotte Rampling? A 15? If it was only a question of a few basic effs and jeffs (‘strong language’) they would surely say so; the same for a quick game of ‘whose leg is it anyway?’ (‘moderate sex scenes’).

Well, much to my surprise it turned out that the main reason the 15 rating on The Sense of an Ending goes unannotated is because, well, if you started, you’d probably never stop. This movie is shot through with a particularly repressed and British kind of grimness, for all that it is superbly written, directed, and performed.

Jim Broadbent plays Tony Webster, a semi-retired shopkeeper, who seems like a very average chap as the film gets underway. (Perhaps the point of the film is that he actually is a very average chap.) He seems well-set in his daily routine, has reasonable relationships with his ex-wife (Walter) and heavily pregnant daughter (Michelle Dockery) – he’s perhaps a bit too reserved and irascible to be what you’d genuinely call a nice fellow, but neither does he seem an especially bad person either.

Then Tony receives a solicitor’s letter, telling him he is the recipient of a bequest – one recently-deceased old acquaintance has left him the diary of another, long-dead old friend. He has not heard from either of these people in decades, for all that he had significant relationships with them when he was a young man. However, there is a further complication – the executor of the will, another former intimate of Tony’s, is refusing to hand over the item in question. But why? And why exactly does Tony find himself growing so obsessed with (as he puts it) claiming his legal property? Are there other psychological forces at work here he is unwilling to acknowledge?

Much of the film is told in flashback, with Billy Howle playing the young Tony, and Freya Mavor as Veronica, the girl he finds himself getting so involved with (who eventually becomes the uncooperative executor, played with customary steely froideur by Charlotte Rampling). Emily Mortimer plays Veronica’s mother, Joe Alwyn is Tony’s close friend Adrian, and Matthew Goode gets the much-coveted ‘and’ position in the credits as their history teacher.

For a while I almost felt a bit cheated, for I had turned up to see a film with Jim Broadbent in the lead role – and who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? – and this seemed to be turning into a period drama with Broadbent only participating in the framing sequence – but the action, such as it is, definitely returns to the present day for much of the latter part of the film. At one point in his rather turbulent personal life, the young Tony wrote an impulsive letter, posted it, and then promptly forgot about it, little suspecting the consequences it might have for its recipients.

No, really – who doesn’t love Jim Broadbent? Everyone knows him as one of the UK’s greatest comic actors (one of the few people capable of coming in and stealing an episode of Blackadder while ostensibly playing a minor role), but also effortlessly touching when the part requires it, and the man’s sheer work-rate is also startling – I’d completely forgotten that he was in three films I’ve seen in the last year or so, in addition to the ones I actually remembered. And he turned down an OBE, on the grounds that actors aren’t the most deserving recipients of that sort of honour, and he didn’t want to be seen to celebrate the idea of Empire. What a guy.

Of course, a lot of Broadbent’s movie work consists of him coming on and doing a little character cameo, more often than not comedic in nature, so the prospect of him playing the lead role in a film which really gives him a chance to do his stuff was, frankly, a bit mouthwatering, regardless of what the actual movie was about. And Broadbent’s performance lives up to expectations (of course) – in some ways his role here almost resembles the one he plays in the Bridget Jones movies, in that he’s the awkward, almost-bumbling father of a young woman who spends her times rolling her eyes at him a lot. But as the story unfolds the less appealing aspects of Tony Webster rise to the surface – unwittingly or not, this is a man quite possibly responsible for horrible things, and Broadbent isn’t afraid to appear unsympathetic and even quite sinister as he acts upon the fixation which gradually develops in the course of the story.

It seems to me that this is a film about a man looking to get a feeling of closure – that sense of an ending alluded to in the title – regardless of whether this is justified, or suits the other people involved, or is even in any way true. One of the advantages of having the film partly set in a school is that the characters can have fairly abstract debates about the intersections between story, history, and motivation without it seeming contrived, and these certainly feed into the theme of the piece. Can we ever truly know why somebody does something? Even if that person is us? And if that’s the case, can we genuinely claim, or disclaim, responsibility for the results of our actions?

Well, I know it sounds heavy (and perhaps a bit pretentious), but the story itself is engrossing (if not exactly a barrel of laughs) and Batra handles the telling of it with deceptive skill, given the various flash-backs, flash-forwards, and other shifts in time and place. (He even tackles one of the more challenging set-pieces in the directorial playbook – that moment when two people attempt to, er, become fully engaged with one another on the back seat of a car – with impressive deftness. No, really, think about it: you’ve got two actors, a cameraman, a sound operator, possibly the director himself, and all the necessary gear, crammed into the interior of a car. Imagine the logistics. Imagine the jostling for space. Imagine the potential for the camera ending up pointing somewhere deeply unflattering or intrusive. I tell you, there should be a special Oscar just for bringing back-seat whoa-ho-ho to the big screen.) It doesn’t have quite the same emotional payoff as his previous film, The Lunchbox, but then that isn’t really the point of the exercise.

You don’t emerge from The Sense of an Ending blazing with delight or quite ready to rave about the film to strangers in the street, but that’s understandable – this is a film about the ambiguities of life, quite ambiguous itself in many ways, with many questions left intentionally unresolved at the conclusion. But it is still a deeply satisfying piece of drama, with the performances of the rest of the cast as impressive as that of Broadbent, and the writing and direction not showing many obvious flaws, either. It’s a quietly dark film, which may not endear it to everyone, but it’s also an extremely accomplished one, and I wonder if the producers haven’t done themselves a disservice by effectively releasing it as counter-programming to Fast and Furious 8: an Autumn release might have made this a genuine awards contender. Nevertheless, no matter the season, this is an impressive movie.

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Long term readers may recall my general antipathy towards the traditional cutesy and predictable rom-com formula, mainly on the grounds that it has none of the connection to reality that it affects to, and doesn’t work hard enough to earn its big moments of emotional release. Long term readers may also recall my general policy of ‘stroke a bandicoot’ when it comes to non-Anglophone cinema. So things were finely poised when it came to Ritesh Batra’s Hindi-language rom-com The Lunchbox. As it transpires, however, I currently seem to be stuck in the habit of going to the cinema at least twice a week, so it’s almost difficult not to see films at the moment.


Central to the plot of Batra’s film are the famed dabbawallahs of Mumbai, who deliver hundreds of thousands of packed lunches to the workers of the city from their nearest and dearest, with a staggeringly tiny error rate of only one misdirected lunch in every seven million. As the plot of The Lunchbox is predicated on a lunch going astray on a regular basis, you might expect the dabbawallahs themselves to be getting justifiably cross about this misrepresentation. For all I know, they are, but disgruntled lunch delivery technicians in Mumbai don’t usually make the news in the UK.

Anyway, the lunch in question is prepared by Ila (Nimrat Kaur), an unhappy young housewife attempting to rekindle her husband’s affection for her. But due to the statistically improbable slip-up mentioned above, the delicious meals she so painstakingly prepares end up on the desk of curmudgeonly widower Saajan (Irrfan Khan). Saajan is on the verge of retirement, and, although this is voluntary, still doesn’t seem delighted at the prospect. Possibly it’s just the prospect of training his overly-perky replacement Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) which is bringing him down.

Well, anyway, Saajan proves much more appreciative of Ila’s cookery than her husband has ever been, and the two begin exchanging notes via the rather laborious mechanism of the lunchbox itself. Slowly their relationship develops, and causes both of them to reconsider their attitude to life, and their hopes for the future.

You are probably already imagining what The Lunchbox is like, but I have to say the version you have running through your head is considerably cuter, less thoughtful, and more annoyingly obvious than the one that Ritesh Batra has actually made. This is almost certainly a wholly good thing. In fact, for much of its running time The Lunchbox doesn’t look much like a rom-com at all. I’m not even sure I would actually call this film a comedy. There are certainly many lighter moments, mostly courtesy of Shaikh and Ila’s unseen upstairs neighbour (voiced by Bharati Achrekar), but much of the film has a poignant, almost melancholic quality, as the characters consider the harsher realities of their lives. This is unmistakably an Indian movie, and the premise of the plot is a uniquely Indian institution, but the wider themes of the piece are universal ones – fear of ageing, loneliness, loss, acceptance, and so on. The movie isn’t afraid to venture, briefly, into some quite dark places.

As a result the relationship between Saajan and Ila, as it slowly and quite credibly develops, really feels as though it means something and could make a difference to both of them. In short, the film works hard to earn an emotional response from the audience, rather just resorting to cheap tricks and gimmickry. It’s an ironic thing, but it seems to me that films which do this are also the ones most likely to avoid giving the audience the big moment of emotional release which they have worked so hard to justify. Does The Lunchbox fall into this category? It would be remiss of me to give away the end of the film, but it was certainly unexpected when it came. This was the kind of movie where many members of the audience stayed in their seats long into the credits, almost as if they were hoping to learn a little more about what would happen to the characters.

The film’s depiction of Mumbai life is convincingly vivid, and for me brought back many memories of living in south Asia. The three main performances are uniformly strong, benefiting from a subtle and layered script. Irrfan Khan shows the star quality which has started to make him a fixture in major Hollywood movies: this isn’t the showiest of parts, but Khan portrays a man coming to a new understanding of himself with meticulous skill and nuance – this is as good a performance as I’ve seen this year.

As you can tell, I liked this film a lot, mainly because it sticks a lot less closely to the rom-com playbook than I feared it might. It’s one of those films which sets out to warm your heart and for the most part actually succeeds. I’m not saying it made me want to set out in search of new romance in my life, but it certainly made me fancy a curry, and this is amongst the least of its achievements.


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