On Chesil Beach – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Dominic Cooke
Writers: Ian McEwan (screenplay), Ian McEwan (novel)
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff
This is an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2007 Booker short listed novel of the same name. It is set in England in the early part of the nineteen sixties before the Beatles, the pill and many other seismic happenings shook the sclerotic foundations of society. Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) is an Oxford undergraduate studying music. Her father, a sh*t of the first order, is a successful manufacturer and is socially precariously perched, his money comes from trade, towards the upper edges of Home Counties society. His intelligent wife is suitably rigid in her political views, she wears blue and pearls, and is conscious of her social position. An undergraduate from a university other than Oxbridge is someone about whom to have doubts. Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) is just such a person as he attended University College London. His father (Adrian Scarborough) is a schoolteacher and his mother an artist who as a result of an accident has suffered brain damage. She behaves in unconventional ways such as removing all her clothes. Edward and Florence have fallen in love. However, physical contact between them is restrained even in a cinema where all around them similar young heterosexual couples are snogging.
The time warp of difference with today is exemplified by where they choose to spend their honeymoon. It is a smart but somewhat fusty English seaside hotel near Chesil Beach in Dorset. It exudes the values of a previous generation where sex before marriage was considered by society as sinful. Edward and Florence are by modern standards singularly ill prepared for their first night of marriage. What is remarkable about the film is this series of scenes, which are toe-curlingly embarrassing to watch, as frigidity and inexperience lead to a situation of frustration which neither appeared to want. It has catastrophic consequences.
The settings of Florence’s home and that of Edward’s together with the stiffness of the seaside hotel engender just the correct tone for the playing out of the relationship between Edward and Florence. Of the four parents, Edward’s father’s character is closest to being holistic. The other three are damaged in different ways. They were the generation who had served in the Second World War .
Ronan gives another master class in acting as Florence stands up to her unlovely parents and struggles to release her own intimate needs when faced with the realities of the marriage bed. Howle as Edward who has been longing for the marriage so as the restrictions on his libido will be removed is magnificent in his incomprehension and subsequent rage when his wife does not feel the same. It is an impressive duet of two bodies not being in harmony.
In many ways it might have been best to leave the film there but the adaptation follows the book to the present day where Ronan and Hoyles’ images are suitably prosthetically enhanced to show how the lives of Florence and Edward turned out. As this climaxes to a moment in the past when they were both in love with each other it is a rather sentimental ending. This is a pity as there is nothing sentimental about the awkwardness of their romance and marriage.