Movie reviews: The Sense of an Ending and The Handmaiden
Jim Broadbent tends to play affable types, apologetic English coves who wouldn't say boo to a goose. But in The Sense of an Ending (4*, 15A, 108 mins) he plays a crusty grump, and most convincingly it has to be said. Directed by Ritesh Batra (creator of the winning 2013 Indian drama The Lunchbox), and written by Nick Payne, it's based on a novel by Julian Barnes and set in contemporary London.
Tony Webster lives alone and owns a vintage camera shop. He plods mournfully to and from work, avoiding the gazes of any chatty-looking passers-by: he's a misanthrope with a capital M, a harrumphing curmudgeon who would rather be left alone if that's okay with everyone else. He's on good terms with his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter), but it's not hard to see why she jumped ship, and even his heavily pregnant daughter Susie (Michelle Dockery) knows not to expect too much of him. Tony's not a bad chap exactly, just a spectacularly world-weary one, but he's awoken from his existential stupor by a letter from a law firm. The mother of an old girlfriend has died, and left him £500, and some diaries. His former girlfriend Veronica (played in youth by Freya Mavor, in the present by Charlotte Rampling) has angrily blocked the bequest, and Tony wants to find out why. And thus begins a kind of leisurely investigation that ponders Tony's troubled memories of school and university, and leads inevitably to a confrontation with his first love.
Good books tend to make bad movies, but The Sense of an Ending is a rare and satisfying exception. It unfolds at a stately pace, and avoids all temptation to dumb down Barnes' psychologically dense novel, but Tony's exploration of the past gives the film a whodunnit dimension which keeps the viewer guessing. It's the characters that pull you in, and the acting is uniformly excellent. Broadbent is as convincing as ever, and Harriet Walter does wonders in a role that might have been slight in other hands, playing an ex-wife who gazes with fond exasperation at a man who insists on making life difficult for himself.
Another film based on a popular novel, Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden (4*, 18, 145 mins) has transplanted Sarah Waters' Victorian tale of lesbian love, Fingersmith, to 1940s Korea. The Japanese are in situ, but for an extended network of Seoul thieves, war is just another opportunity for crime. A con artist who works under the alias of Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo) has targeted a wealthy recluse called Kouzuki (Cho jin-woong) as his latest mark. Kouzuki has a beautiful niece, Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), whom he's kept secluded and plans to marry for her fortune.
The conman wants that fortune for himself, so he persuades a clever young female pickpocket, Sookee (Kim Tae-ri), to go and work at the house posing as a maid, get close to Lady Hideko and persuade her to fall in love with 'Count Fujiwara'. Streetwise cynic that she is, Sookie is shocked by the sadism of Hideko's uncle, an odious toad with a lovingly tended library of pornography he describes as "Sade-esque". Kouzuki forces Hideko to read steamy passages to an audience of invited 'gentlemen', and threatens her with torture if she refuses. Salvation beckons when the dashing and polished 'Count Fujiwara' turns up, but meanwhile Sookie has fallen in love with Hideko, leading to all sorts of twists and complications.
Most of Park Chan-wook's previous films (Oldboy, Lady Vengeance) have combined meticulous visual storytelling with extreme violence, which might not make him the ideal candidate for a film that celebrates sensual lesbian love. But he handles the story beautifully, illustrating the growing intimacy between Sookie and Hideko by dwelling on silks and kimonos that will slowly be undone. The Handmaiden is sensuous rather than lurid, an erotic thriller with a sense of humour and more than a few twists up its sleeve.