This has recently been added to BBC’s iPlayer in the UK. It’s a strange beast in some ways and I think I would like to have been an observer at whatever meeting took place in early 2015 when Ritesh Batra was offered the chance to direct it. Batra was coming off the back of his successful international début with The Lunchbox (India 2013) and this adaptation of Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-winning novella must have looked a logical step. It has some elements shared with The Lunchbox, including a focus on letters and postcards – the so-called epistolary narrative – as well as a flashback to an earlier period. Also it features a number of relationships with a pair of parallel relationship narratives involving the central character. On the other hand, Batra had to shift from a ‘middle class’ Indian story to a very different middle-class English milieu. Batra himself has spent a fair amount of time in the US for his film training but I don’t know how well he knows the UK.
Whatever the discussion at this imagined meeting, I don’t think that there was much doubt that this would be a commercial proposition. Batra was still ‘hot’ from The Lunchbox, Barnes is a well-known writer amongst a certain kind of middle-class readership in the UK and internationally and a Booker Prize carries weight with that audience. Added to this the film has a powerful cast of revered UK acting talent and targeted the 60+ plus age group who have shown that they will go to intelligent dramas that are well constructed and performed. The film had the backing of both BBC Films and CBS Films in North America and distribution in the UK by Studio Canal. It opened on 107 screens in the UK and made around £1 million at the UK box office.
The narrative is relatively straightforward but because of the ‘epistolary’ element and the development of a mystery, eventually quite complex. Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent) is the ‘curmudgeon’, a man in his late 60s, divorced and semi-retired – we see just the one mildly irritating customer in his shop where he sells vintage cameras (Leicas in the main). One day he receives a letter informing him that he has been left something in the will of a woman who was the mother of Veronica, a girl he met at university nearly 50 years ago. Intrigued, he attempts to find out what it is all about. A sub-plot, seemingly there to explore his curmudgeonly nature in a different context, concerns his heavily pregnant daughter Susie, a single woman having a child who needs the support of her parents. She’s played by Michelle Dockery and Harriet Walter plays Tony’s ex-wife Margaret with whom he still has a fairly amicable relationship. Eventually we learn that the ‘bequest’ is a diary which Veronica (Charlotte Rampling) refuses to produce. What follows traces the events of the early period alongside Tony’s ‘investigation’ and eventual meeting with Veronica as she is now.
I won’t spoil the narrative but I presume that the world it depicts is partly based on memories of Barnes’ time at school and university as interpreted by Nick Payne who adapted the original work. The most significant characters in the 1960s story are Veronica (Freya Mavor), Emily Mortimer as her mother Sarah and Joe Alwyn as Tony’s schoolfriend Adrian. The performances are all strong but for me the presumably commercial decision to go with well-known established actors has undermined aspects of the narrative. Most of the cast are too old for their parts (established actors in their mid 20s playing 18-19 year-olds) and the school/first year university scenes didn’t work for me at all. This too is where the middle-class environment became stifling after a while. Tony’s school is presumably a London grammar/independent school and the university where Tony and Veronica meet is Bristol, the alternative to Oxbridge for the southern middle classes. The plot hinges on decisions Tony did or didn’t make in the past and the whole narrative is about dealing with memories and how they still seem to have resonance in the present. The problem is that the relationships in the film seem lacking in passion and it does seem as if it is a literary exercise of some kind. I found it difficult to engage with Tony as a character. I suppose I wanted to know a bit more about his background and how it might have affected the way in which he engaged with Veronica. I have to confess that the 1960s events deal with issues I recognise and though this did gain my interest it probably also made me more critical.
I’m not sure what Ritesh Batra brought to the film. From his two Indian-set films we know that he can handle actors with sensitivity and he can put across a complex narrative. But I think here the script probably didn’t allow him much opportunity to develop his own ideas. The narrative does have a resolution and London looks attractive, matching the nostalgic glow of the 1960s scenes. DoP Christopher Ross shot the film in 2.35:1 which is unusual for a British drama like this. There are also a few long shots but I didn’t get the sense of a specific style. The choice of music tracks shows a little imagination, mixing The Troggs, Donovan and Nick Drake with Irma Thomas and other blues/soul/jazz artists but Max Richter’s score didn’t do anything for me. I think overall that this was an opportunity lost and the commercial decisions have produced a safe, ‘well-made’ film for an older audience. In my experience that older audience is quite prepared to to engage with more daring stuff. Charlotte Rampling’s presence reminds us of the similarly-themed 45 Years (UK 2015) and I think Andrew Haigh’s film did have the passion this lacked. The school scenes might also have benefited from some of the vitality in An Education (UK 2009) which gave us Carey Mulligan as a relatively new face and made her a star. Rampling also reminds us of the French family dramas she has been part of and by comparison this film is neither arthouse or ‘vitally’ popular. It’s an attempt at the ‘quality film’ market. I wonder what Julian Barnes really thinks about it? Ritesh Batra seems now to be preparing another international film set partly in Africa and, according to IMDb, Julia Roberts on board.