On Chesil Beach, 2017.
Directed by Dominic Cooke.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough, and Bebe Cave.
Young newlyweds Edward and Florence arrive at their seaside hotel for their honeymoon in the 1960s, full of anticipation as to what married life has in store for them. As they grapple with a lack of intimacy and communication, flashbacks reveal how they met.
There’s something very British about Ian McEwan novels, and whether it’s details of dress, decor, mannerisms or vibe, his stories always sit very comfortably in their assigned period. In On Chesil Beach, this is testament of course not only to McEwan’s writing (he is the author of the screenplay, too), but also to director Dominic Cooke and production designer Suzie Davies. The accuracy is admirable, but there’s also that extra, hard-to-define essence that utterly convinces the viewer of its 1960s rural Oxfordshire setting.
The plot is a fascinating, universally sympathetic one – but also equally entirely of its own time and place. Inexperienced newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) are just beginning their honeymoon by the seaside, and nervously facing the delicate task of consummating their marriage. It’s a small tale of one couple’s struggle to communicate a topic never previously much discussed, as well as a massive, period-defining issue. As flashbacks explain how the couple met and reached this point On Chesil Beach slowly becomes a heartbreaking, awkward, messy and mortifying film, with Edward and Flo clearly victims of an old-fashioned society and upbringing.
The central couple are well-judged characters in that they are both good people that love one another, but are too emotionally repressed to talk through their desires and fears frankly and honestly. Neither is perfect or entirely agreeable either: they both react in unreasonable ways to the other’s actions, making for several uncomfortably frustrating moments. Saoirse Ronan is as excellent as always as Florence, the (very) English rose with a quiet demeanour and steely interior. Returning triumphantly to McEwan territory after Atonement, it seems prudent to point out that last time she received her first Oscar nomination. Billy Howle is a newer face on the big screen (but previously in Dunkirk and soon to feature alongside Ronan again in The Seagull) but an entirely worthy co-star for Ronan, channelling the perfect mix of gauche and wannabe cool as the rather inept Edward.
It’s beautifully judged, the number of times – and in different ways – the couple say ‘I love you’: sometimes automatic, sometimes reassuring, genuine, as a distraction… they are perfectly portrayed as a couple who are still getting over the novelty of saying it to one another, and having the freedom to be with one another – but also being unsure of exactly what to do with said freedom.
Flo and Edward come from different classes, something used for both humour and conflict. Flo’s parents (a wonderfully huffy Emily Watson and a rather terrifying Samuel West) dismiss UCL as a working class college because of its location in London – and her father can only knock back his wine in abject horror when he discovers Edward’s father is the headteacher of a primary school. Adrian Scarborough and Anne-Marie Duff are heart-rending as Edward’s parents in a household full of love but dominated by Edward’s mother’s brain damage. Both children are clear products of their parents’ outlooks on life.
There are lighter moments throughout the film surrounding the couple’s clumsiness and lack of experience – from the silver service waiters guffawing at their awkwardness to Flo’s sister Ruth (a spirited Bebe Cave) getting stuck into reading a sex manual with her sister. It’s this, however, mixed with the fraught misunderstandings of their wedding night that gives On Chesil Beach its unique and emotional resonance.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★