ON CHESIL BEACH
THREE STARS A young couple have much to learn about the bonds of love in the pre-swinging sixties.
Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle
PERIOD DRAMA #ONCHESILBEACH
If there was a case of being too close to the work, ON CHESIL BEACH is just such a film. Based on the acclaimed novella by Ian McEwan (ATONEMENT), it tells the story of a young couple torn apart by ignorance. In the early 60’s before the decade started swinging, Florence and Edward get married. Although she’s read a guide to sex, reading and doing are vastly different things (particularly as she seems to have skipped the part about premature ejaculation - more on that in a minute).
The newly minted couple are honeymooning on Britain’s south coast, Chesil Beach, and are suitably nervous about doing ‘it’. Interrupting their coitus are a series of flashbacks that flesh out their stories - she’s from an academic family, he wants to write a history guide. Not exactly polar opposites yet Florence’s mother’ doesn't see him as the right sort exactly. Fortunately Edward’s family is utterly charmed by Florence. Still, the couple haven't shared everything and come wedding night, the pressure’s on.
Thus all the markers are in place for a fascinating exploration of two people feeling their way into a brave new world. It’s what made McKewan’s novel so compelling. Unfortunately, so much of that has been lost in translation (one he did himself who, as screenwriter, hasn’t found a way to ignite screen passion quite as he did in the book). And this despite an excellent cast at their most excellent: Saoirse Ronan (who can do no wrong) is the perfect match for all-English Billy Howle with Anne-Marie Duff and Emily Watson in fine support.
There’s a sense that first-time director Dominic Cooke doesn’t want to upset any apple carts or rattle any teacups, especially those belonging to Ian McEwan. It’s a pity because by the time Flo and Ed truly come alive, their coitus having been fatally interrupted and Florence’s one-sided solution meeting Edward’s fiery anger, ON CHESIL BEACH has already shut us out.
It’s a pity. Cooke’s visual production is splendid and his cast give it their all (see above re Ronan who can do no wrong), yet a cold chill settles early and no amount of period beauty can ward it off. Where you should feel the greatest sympathy for their plight (oh for the merest sliver of education), McEwan stays wrapped in the poetry of language, explanatory dialogue trapped inside his book. It becomes an academic exercise, not a heart-felt one, compounded by an ill-conceived epilogue that tasks the now elderly couple with exploring their emotions through several inches of unconvincing old-age makeup.
If you really want to know how they felt, you’ll have to read the book.