Adapted for the screen from the 2011 novel by Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending tells the story of Tony Webster (Jim Broadbent), a man who leads a quiet life until his past comes back and forces him to face the mistakes he made and the consequences that resulted. While trying to make amends for past behavior, he’s also facing a big life change, as his daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), is about to give birth to her first child and his first grandchild.
During this interview with Collider, actress Michelle Dockery talked about how proud she is to be a part of telling such a beautiful human story, playing a character that is closer to who she is, the differences between the novel and the film, the relationship between Susie and her father, and the awkwardness and humor that comes from wearing a prosthetic pregnancy belly. She also talked about what she most enjoys about playing Letty in the TNT series Good Behavior, which has already been picked up for Season 2, and what an amazing time she had making the Netflix Western mini-series Godless.
Collider: This film is really such a beautiful human story.
MICHELLE DOCKERY: Thank you! I’m so proud of it. It was such a wonderful film to be a part of. After I watched it, I felt like it’s the kind of movie that really stays with you.
Because this is just a very human story about people and relationships, and the people that come in and out of our lives, is Susie a character that you could relate to, on a personal level, more than other characters that you’ve played, especially recently?
DOCKERY: I’ve never really played a part, or not for a long time anyway, that is closer to who I am, in accent and age, so yes, in a way, the performance is closer to me, as opposed to Letty or Lady Mary, who are very, very different from me.
What was it about the script that attracted you, and had you been familiar with the novel that this film was adapted from?
DOCKERY: I loved the novel. I read it a long time ago, when it first came out, so I was familiar with it. The script was different. In the novel, she’s married with two children, but in the film, she’s expecting a baby and there’s a mystery around the character. You don’t really know what her backstory is and why she’s doing this on her own, but in a way, you don’t really need to know, necessarily. I certainly didn’t feel like I needed to know. I love that about the film. It allows the audience to make up their own minds and assumptions. For us, it was quite open to interpretation, in a way. (Director) Ritesh [Batra] has got such a wonderful way of working. He’s wise beyond his years and has this very relaxed attitude for everything, and it allows the work the space to breathe. You see that when you’re watching it. It’s one of those films that has moments that are suspended, where nothing is happening, and it allows you time to think. It’s not rushing to the next scene, or crushing in music to make you feel a certain way. It was beautifully put together by him.
It was really refreshing to watch because you’re forced to stay in the moment with each character, since you don’t know where they’ve come from yet and you can’t judge them for their past, until you learn what that past is.
DOCKERY: I think that’s right.
How do you think Susie looks at her father, and how do you think her perception of him would change, if she knew that he had this full life story he hasn’t really shared with his family?
DOCKERY: He’s divorced from her mother. It seems like they are close, on some level, with him being her birthing and natal class partner. It was hilarious to film those scenes with real expecting parents, and there I was with my prosthetic bump. It’s interesting because the story builds to that point, with the letter and the discovery for Tony, and it all comes around the time of her going into labor. They’re both about to experience a huge change. She’s about to become a mother, and he’s about to become a grandfather. You see how everything affects the relationship, with both Susie and Margaret. It’s about memory and how we fabricate our memories, or rearrange them to suit us. It’s Tony’s journey of discovery and boldly facing the truth about his past and the consequences of his actions.
To play a pregnant woman, you obviously have to dress the part. What was it like to wear the pregnancy belly, and did you have any funny or awkward experiences, trying to get around with it on?
DOCKERY: Yeah. It was very heavy. The costume department wanted it to look as real as possible. For me, it was important that it had that weight to it, to give it that feeling, without actually having a human growing inside of me. We wanted it to look as real as possible, so it was a body suit and a prosthetic bump. And I definitely felt a bit of a placebo effect with it. I wanted to eat more, and I felt more tied than I normally do. It’s also interesting how people react around you when you look like a very heavily pregnant woman. It was very humorous, at times. Being at the natal class with Jim [Broadbent] was slightly awkward and quite funny.
You’ve been so great as Letty in Good Behavior, which is so different from what your Downtown Abbey fans were used to seeing from you. What did you most enjoy about playing a character like that and shooting the first season, and what are you most excited about, in returning to her for Season 2?
DOCKERY: The thing with Letty is that I have absolutely no idea what to expect. I had no idea what the amazing writers have got in store, so it’s always really exciting, getting the next script. She’s an amazing character to play and an incredibly human character with flaws. She is a multi-faceted woman, and I love playing those complex, complicated women. That’s what we all are. What’s brilliant about Letty is that she represents what a lot of women are. It’s not a two-dimensional character. What I love about her is that she makes these decisions that aren’t always the best ones, but she’s not punished for it and she doesn’t have to apologize for it. And then, aside from all of that, there are the brilliant costumes and wig changes and characters within the character. It’s a dream, really, to play a part like her.
You’ve also done the Netflix western mini-series Godless, with Jeff Daniels and Jack O’Connell. What was it about that story, that period, and that character that appealed to you?
DOCKERY: All of those things. The script was absolutely amazing! It took my breath away, reading it. It’s something that Scott Frank has been working on for many years. I think it’s been 10 years in the making. There was absolutely no question that I wanted to be a part of it, and Scott cast me. Going from Good Behavior to Godless was such a big change, as well. It was back into period costume, and going through cowboy camp, learning how to shoot guns and ride horses in a very different way. Western is very, very different to the English style of riding, so I had to have some training. We had an amazing time on that, and I’m very excited to see it.
The Sense of an Ending opens in limited release on March 10th, and expanded release on March 17th.