Review: “On Chesil Beach”

3 out of 5 stars.

On Chesil Beach” is a 2007 novel (novella, really, as it comes in at under 200 pages) by celebrated author Ian McEwan that intimately examines the relationship between a young couple up to and including their wedding night.  It does this so intimately, in fact, that it’s hard to imagine the book being adapted into an almost two hour movie; the story resonates thanks to McEwan’s prose, but it isn’t very cinematic.  However, adapted into an almost two hour movie it has been, as the feature film debut of stage director Dominic Cooke, with a screenplay by McEwan.

The bulk of the action is set in 1962, on the wedding night of Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan), with flashbacks revealing how they met and what their home lives are like.  Edward is a history student from a working class family who coasts through life with little ambition; Florence is hard-working musician from an upper class family, with lofty aspirations for the quartet she founded.  They meet at a rally in Oxford and it’s love at first sight.  But despite their deep love for each other, Edward is always pushing them to move the relationship forward, while Florence holds back, scared both because of the expectations placed on her and the abuse she suffered from her father as a child.  As a result, their marriage threatens to fall apart before it’s even begun, as the couple honeymoon at a hotel on Chesil Beach.

On Chesil Beach 2
Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) on the day they first meet

On Chesil Beach” switches back and forth a lot between time periods and Edward and Florence’s points of view.  The bulk of the film involves these flashbacks interspersed amongst the scenes from the couple’s wedding night, and it’s something the movie doesn’t handle especially well, at least early on.  Much of that is due to the fact that in the book, these flashbacks are all internalized in the characters’ thoughts; for the film, however, in order to both show and tell, those thoughts have to be externalized.  These leads to some rather clunky dialogue and Edward and Florence reminiscence with each other.  Edward discusses how his learning about his mother’s freak accident that caused her to become brain damaged changed his outlook, while Florence talks about how they met, but they do this in a way that is stilted and unnatural, and makes it feel as if these two people know next to nothing about each other’s lives—which is true in a way, but it still starts the film off on an awkward foot.  The switching back and forth between the current time and the flashbacks is also rather random, and doesn’t really find a good rhythm until the film’s climax, when the two characters put everything out in the open and the movie switches to a more linear timeline.

Howle and Ronan are both excellent at embodying both their characters’ quiet, nervous sides, but can boil over with anger and frustration when the situation calls for it.  They are completely believable as the young couple, and while they carry much of the film on their own, there is a solid supporting cast that includes Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, and Adrian Scarborough as these couple’s two very different sets of parents.  It’s interesting what details about their relationship the film glosses over and what it studies closely; for instance, we get less of a sense of Edward’s frustration at Florence’s continued clamminess, something that would have tied more closely into the anger that eventually explodes.  There are a few aspects of his story that McEwan changes, some for the better, others not so much, like an ending that gives the characters a bit more closure.

Cooke handles the scenes where the characters are just sitting and talking well, and that’s likely due to his background in theatre.  But a few of the more cinematic touches, like the cutting back and forth between past and present, aren’t as impressive, while certain aspects don’t work at all, like the upbeat, jazzy tune that was chosen to play over the opening title, likely there to illustrate the different music tastes between Edward and Florence, but utterly failing to set the tone for what is ultimately not a happy story.

The film version of “On Chesil Beach” loses a lot of the introspection that makes the novel powerful, but for whatever it fails to accomplish, it does give us two actors giving their all.  And to see the sorrow and regret play across Howle and Ronan’s faces as they think on what could have been is one thing that a book can’t give you.

Runtime: 110 minutes. Rated R.

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