Below are the remarks from the March 21, 2017 “Off the Couch” viewing of The Sense of an Ending with Mary Anderson, PhD, MTS, MFA, Member of BPSI. “Off the Couch” is part of a decades-long collaboration between The Coolidge Cinema and BPSI.

Tony Webster leads a reclusive and quiet existence until long buried secrets from his past force him to face the flawed recollections of his younger self, the truth about his first love and the devastating consequences of decisions made a lifetime ago.

CBS Films and Lionsgate

The Tell and Toll of Time

“I’m not very interested in my schooldays, and don’t feel any nostalgia for them,” Tony Webster tells us as the film opens – words that both affirm and negate the feelings that will soon overturn his “peaceable” life. “In those days,” he says, “we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. How were we to know that our lives had already begun…?”[1]

The Sense of an Ending, adapted from the 2011 Man Booker Prize novel by Julian Barnes,[2] is a cinematic reflection on the interstices of time and its affective reservoir – the archive of unconsciously repressed and displaced feelings, anxiety, and aggression, that live on in a person – you, me, and Tony Webster. Through the character of Tony we witness the elusive, intrusive and inconclusive mechanics of memory while the multiple living definitions of history – “the lies of the victors,” “the self-delusions of the defeated” and Adrian Finn’s inimitable “[History is] that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation”– become real, embodied, before our eyes. As Tony’s story unfolds, memory is exposed as the flawed construction of a mind that desires both to remember and to forget, testifying less to the facts that “something happened” and more to his capacity for self-deception, the ego’s defensively negotiating a way to survive, a way to live with himself and the inevitable, sometimes inconceivable, pain that life delivers to us all, in time.

The arc of the film – from forgetting to remembering, navigating the gaps and oscillations between the two – echoes Sigmund Freud’s 1914 paper on the technique of psychoanalysis as a method for ‘working-through’ a patient’s resistances in recollecting repressed events.[3] Tony’s opening words, “we imagined ourselves being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives” take on a present, poignant, meaning when his receipt of the solicitor’s letter – and later, a copy of his own – ignites a process of remembering, recognition and remorse, that – we are led to believe by the film’s redemptive ending – releases him from the curmudgeonly ‘holding pen’ of his past into the bearable losses and loves of his current life.

The director, Ritesh Batra, represents these finely-rendered temporal and psychic fissures through a series of sharp, jarring juxtapositions; we experience the seams, edits and splicings of youth and age, present and past, reality and dream, in one continuous stream of time that parallels the intermittent rhythms of remembering, its vivid lapsing and return within Tony’s interior and exterior terrains.

Equally compelling, in a filmic, temporal and psychoanalytic sense, are those instances in which present age and past time interpenetrate, visually displacing and destabilizing the locus and sequence of past and present: middle-aged Tony entering the party where he both encounters and encountered young Veronica Ford, his soon-to-be yet long past girlfriend, with her camera; Tony’s aged countenance replacing that of his youth, as he looks out from the car’s back-window, leaving Chislehurst, Veronica’s family home; and when Veronica’s mother, a young Sarah Ford, lightly bumps into him as he descends a public stairway, present tense. Here the form of the film, Batra’s seamless and timely editing of what we routinely call ‘flashbacks’, represents so much more as it performs the fugitive, inconstant and surround-sound impressions of memory, formally articulating, jostling and conflating subjective and objective, intrapsychic and intersubjective, experience.

Most piercing, perhaps, are the multiple senses of an ending conveyed by this subtle and deftly edited film: the ending of a life in suicide – is it “impressive … or a miserable waste”? – and the demise of the literary-philosophical ideal that inspired it; the ending of an intimate relationship and of the sexual desire, idealization and projection that sustained it; the cruel, sadistic severing of a friendship in the midst of a maelstrom of conflict and affect. As viewers we vicariously experience the ending of an aspiration, a dream, bereavement of a loss – Tony’s movement from aspiring poet to camera shop owner – and the ending of an identity, a way of seeing oneself through the particular self-narrative that Tony had understood to be his … had thought to be true. Paradoxically, in The Sense of an Ending we witness also the loss of an ending – the seemingly interminable, unanticipated afterlife of human words and deeds.

In this sense, Batra’s film – and, infinitely more so, Barnes’ novel – offers a morally-complex view of the penetrating force, affect and effect of language, crafting an intricate, enigmatic relationship between the invective written by young Tony to Adrian and Veronica and the ensuing events that become their lives. Not a “philosophically self-evident” relation of cause and effect nor the “talking cure” of Freud, we instead experience with a mature Tony the uncanny doubling and displacement of meanings wrought and animated across decades,[4] between the violent words of his youthful letter –“that the mutual damage will be permanent,” “that you are left with a lifetime of bitterness,” “Part of me hopes you’ll have a child, because I’m a great believer in time’s revenge,” “If I were you, I’d check things out with Mum …” – and the unvarnished burden, the vulnerability, the actual toll of time and circumstance in people’s lives – not in memory – but in the flesh.

“I can’t do anything to you now, but time can,” Tony had written then. “Time will tell. It always does.”[5] Now, decades later, this unreliable narrator will amend his earlier, youthful, spontaneous definition of history from “the lies of the victors” to “more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”[6]


[1] Dialogue in quotation marks is cited verbatim from the film.

[2] Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (Vintage International, 2011). Screenplay written by Nick Paynes.

[3] Sigmund Freud (1914) “Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through (Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-analysis II) in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XII, trans. James Strachey (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute for Psycho-analysis, 1958), 145-156.

[4] Sigmund Freud addressed this phenomenon of doubling, displacement, animating the inanimate, and the familiar made strange in his 1919 paper, “Das Unheimliche,” translated by James Strachey as “The ‘Uncanny’” in The Standard Edition, Vol. XVII (London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute for Psycho-analysis, 1958) pp. 218-256.

[5] Julian Barnes, The Sense of An Ending, 106.

[6] Ibid, 61.

[6] Ibid, 61.

Mary Anderson, PhD, MTS, MFA, is an interdisciplinary artist-scholar, writer, educator and consultant, working at the intersections of philosophy, theology, ethics, aesthetics and psychoanalysis. Her consulting practice focuses on the ethical and aesthetic articulation of meaning in human life and art. A recent academic graduate of candidate training at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute, Dr. Anderson coordinates the Global Humanities Curriculum Project at the Mahindra Humanities Center at Harvard University. She is currently writing a series of essays on representation and the ethical ‘turn’ within human consciousness.

Mary Anderson can be contacted by email here.


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