Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novel is a slim one—around 160 pages. It might be short of length, but by no means is it a quick read. It requires flipping back to connect the dots, to understand the events as they unfold. The writing, the timelines, the thoughtfulness of the central character and the arc of the story contribute to its complexity. When I read the book—after the film was announced—I had a recurring thought: This is a tough book to adapt to screen.
Screenwriter Nick Payne and director Ritesh Batra have risen to the challenge. The adaptation, while not wholly loyal to the novel, has mostly captured its essence: a languid narrative style, British to the core, that dwells on nostalgia, memory and its many filters.
The arrival of an unexpected letter unlocks Tony Webster’s (Jim Broadbent) recollections—foggy with time—of an uncomfortable past and a former girlfriend. The letter is part of an endowment (of a diary) that is being withheld by the executor of the will. Stubborn 60-year-old Tony chases down the diary and thereby reconnects with his old childhood love. Veronica Ford (Charlotte Rampling) reluctantly parts with merely a few pages of the diary left to Tony by her deceased mother, Sarah Ford (Emily Mortimer). Two pages are all it takes to stoke old wounds. The screenplay shifts back and forth, filling in the story as Tony recounts incidents from his school and university days to his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter).
The story mostly revolves around Tony (Billy Howle plays the younger version), his best mates at school, and his teen romance with Veronica (Freya Mavor). The arrival of new student Adrian Finn (Joe Alwyn) sets off a chain of events. As Tony reaches into the recesses of his mind, he pieces together the story and unravels his own part in the tragedy. It’s summarised by this wonderful line from the original text: “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”
Cinematically, not much happens. Most of the conversations between Tony/Margaret and Tony/Veronica and Tony/schoolmates happen over food and drink, either in diners, pubs, kitchens or school canteens. Breaking from the main storyline is a side plot about Tony’s relationship with his pregnant daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery). What the film lacks, and which is there in the original text, is the build up of the schoolboy camaraderie and Tony’s befuddlement in his relationship with Veronica. At the same time, some of the embellishments are charming, such as the transforming relationship between the senior Tony and his local mailman. It conveys how closure to an unpleasant childhood experience thaws out a curmudgeonly old man.