Tony Webster, played to perfection in old age by Jim Broadbent, is a man who has lived an ordinary life in which he says he has neither won nor lost: we see him at school with his mates; his relationship at university with his girlfriend called Veronica; a marriage with one child followed by an amicable divorce. He has let life happen to him. And then he gets a letter from a solicitor saying that he has inherited money and a diary from Veronica's mother in her will and in an instance the careful, uncomplicated life that he has built up is turned upside down.
The film starts with Jim as a retired man running a tiny camera shop as much for fun, it would seem, as for profit. His daughter (Michelle Dockery) calls him Mudge, short for curmudgeonly, but in truth he is just not particularly aware of those around him – he barely notices that the postman is a living being, for instance. He is still on good terms with his wife Margaret (Harriet Walter) and it is to her that he turns for advice when he finds that the diary is not available because of Veronica's refusal to hand it over to him. The Tony Webster of Julian Barnes' book (which the film is based on) is perhaps more reflective than curmudgeonly, but in the film his change of attitude, after the revelation, towards those around him gives us some feeling of redemption for him, despite what he did as a young man. He becomes more aware of his movement through people's lives: he cannot change what has happened but he can be there for his daughter when she gives birth; he apologises to his ex-wife – he even gives the bemused postman a cup of coffee. He has learnt some empathy.
The acting is faultless. The older actors are as good as ever: Charlotte Rampling as Veronica has a way of slightly tilting her head with a twitch of a cold smile on her lips, which conveys more than a thousand words could. The young actors are convincing too (Billy Howle as the rather innocent young Tony and Freya Mavor as the not-so-innocent young Veronica) when portraying their complicated relationship. The film moves backwards and forwards from the younger Tony and Veronica to Tony and Veronica in their sixties; the odd flashback hinting at what is to come.
We all suffer damage, Julian Barnes says, 'how could we not?'. Nobody can be perfect. It is the way we react to damage that is important and how it affects the way we deal with others. In the film, Tony Webster learns this lesson, too late for some but not too late for him to deal better with others in future.