From the lows of The Good Son and The Innocent to the highs of The Cement Garden and Atonement, it would be fair to say that author Ian McEwan has experienced mixed fortunes when it comes to film adaptations of his literary works. Widely regarded as one of the best British writers this side of the Second World War, McEwan’s rich themes and drama always feel like the perfect material for cinematic expression, so which end of the success spectrum would On Chesil Beach end up?
As it turns out, the film places somewhere in the middle. On Chesil Beach tells the story of Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), a young couple who, on the very day of their wedding, are forced to address the serious issue of Florence’s aversion to any kind of sexual activity. The narrative is tethered to a confrontation in their Dorset honeymoon location whilst simultaneously providing the audience with flashbacks about both Florence and Edward’s private lives and the blossoming of their ill fated relationship.
Whilst On Chesil Beach proves to be a satisfying, interesting and quintessentially British feeling drama that portrays a narrative I don’t think I’ve seen before, one can’t help but feel that the story on a whole fares much better in novel form where each individual theme and strand can be explored with greater detail and nuance. Though the central plot point of the entire picture boils down to one key conversation and confrontation, issues and themes such as class, mental illness and abuse are all present alongside the more obvious theme of sex and sexuality. The film doesn’t necessarily leave any major questions unanswered, but you can certainly sense that the story might have benefitted from the room that chapters on the page give you over minutes on the screen.
One thing that On Chesil Beach does execute and capture perfectly is an at times unbearable air of tension and awkwardness between Florence and Edward, something that creates a stark contrast between their early, more innocent courtship, and the later scenes in which more intimate physical contact is expected and attempted. Another impressive element is in the subtle and interesting way that the early 1960s are shown to be a time in which two sets of moral standards are very much starting to converge. Parallels between classical music and the burgeoning rock and roll scene, stuffy traditional parents compared to artsy, bohemian types and exploration of upper class versus middle class, all of these things come together to help us understand that Florence and Edward are coming together at a point where the boundaries of acceptability and ‘decency’ are starting to change.
Ultimately, On Chesil Beach provides a tense and interesting insight in to a theme and story that you don’t often see portrayed on screen. We are so used to period romances coming from an angle of breaking from societal convention and giving in to lust, that it is kind of refreshing and different to experience something that showcases the other, more complicated side of the coin.
As the complicated and constrained Florence, Saoirse Ronan continues to stake her claim as the best young actress of her generation. Having already given a career making, Oscar nominated performance in Atonement, another Ian McEwan adaptation, at just twelve years of age, the actress clearly feels at home in the author’s universes. Her Florence is delicate, gentle and aspirational but at the same time possesses an underlying level of edge, fragility and ‘unhingedness’ that alerts the audience to something off or problematic in the midst.
Billy Howle as Edward provides the perfect representation of a slightly roguish, slightly rougher, slightly further down the class ladder type of heartthrob that a girl like Florence would fall for. Admittedly his star doesn’t shine quite as bright as Ronan’s, but at this point in time not many people would be able to out do her on the big screen. Together, the pair share a poignant chemistry, a chemistry that is vital for portraying a relationship that harbours true love, albeit without the presence of such a traditionally crucial element.
The central protagonists are supported by a seasoned set of performers including Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West and Adrian Scarborough, all of whom give great turns and help to add the seal of quality that all of the best British period dramas seem to have thanks to their strength and depth of cast.
Overall, On Chesil Beach is a solid period piece that presents a different type of love story to the ones we usually associate this with type of genre and setting. Its intensity and intentional discomfort are pretty masterful at times, but it definitely would have benefitted from a little more time to breathe (a classic complaint when it comes to novel to screen adaptations). The film manages to feel heavy yet fragile at the same time, thanks in part to a compelling premise and a couple of standout performances, most notably from Saoirse Ronan who at this point, I feel, is unable to do anything but.