On Chesil Beach (2017)
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Sam West, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough and Bebe Cave.
It’s the early 1960s and newly-married couple, Florence and Edward, have arrived to spend their first night together at a hotel near Chesil Beach in Dorset. Their first attempt at intimacy is a disaster and leaves both of them wondering if their marriage has any future.
At first sight, adapting a novella for the big screen, as well as for a full length feature, looks like a huge challenge. But it’s been known to work. The Shawshank Redemption, anybody? And, in the case of On Chesil Beach, it meant that pretty much everything from its original 166 pages was used in the screenplay, penned by the book’s author, Ian McEwan. And a bit more.
Much of the story is set in the early 60s, although it follows through to the 70s and 2007. We witness the courtship of Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), both university-educated despite their contrasting social backgrounds – their first meeting, their romantic moments and the lead up to their first night together as man and wife. But what should be the culmination of their love goes horribly wrong and the couple are devastated.
A sad story, then. Tragic, even. And that air of melancholy is there right from the start, even during the heady days of their courtship. Both – she in particular – are constrained by the conventions of the day: little physical contact before marriage, certainly no sex (the cinema was one of the few places where couples went to get to know each other better) and virginity expected of young women on their wedding night. Not only is sex before marriage frowned upon, it’s a taboo subject. All that repression seeps into the film, as does Florence’s coolness, and creates a distance between what’s happening on the screen and the audience. Despite the performances, Ronan’s especially, it’s difficult to feel that all-important sense of involvement.
Not that there isn’t much to admire. This is certainly an actor’s piece, with Ronan as immaculate as ever, right down to a perfect English accent. And her parents, as played by Emily Watson and Sam West, are formidable, bullying snobs who make no bones about their daughter having chosen beneath her. The period has been re-created in meticulous detail, especially that hotel near Chesil Beach, which serves up tinned peas and carrots as part of what is considered to be a special dinner. Freezers had yet to take hold, let alone fresh vegetables. In the 70s, the carry cases in Ed’s record shop are spot on: anybody who bought vinyl at the time had at least one of them, if not several. It’s all beautifully brought to life with some superb photography, especially the closing scene on the beach.
Yet, after all that, it shoots itself in the foot in the final scenes. Not that keeping the same actors to play Florence and Edward as older people is a problem, but the actors are saddled with prosthetics that look like they were purchased from the bargain basement. Clumsy and conspicuous, they’re reminiscent of the make-up used on TV in the 70s, and miles behind the standards we’ve become used to of late.
Director Dominic Cooke admits that, in adapting On Chesil Beach for the screen, a few pages were expanded. It shows, to the extent that the film feels padded out and the overall effect is slow and heavy. Even though it has much to say about the attitudes of the time, and the harm they actually caused to people who were forced to follow them, it’s too much like hard work and ends up feeling cold and distant.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.