On Chesil Beach Review
Lauded theatre director Dominic Cooke adapts Ian McEwan’s tale of a fractured relationship with relative success in this graceful but uneven film. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle play Florence and Edward, newlyweds alone in a hotel room on the titular Dorset shore, both quietly terrified of the imminent consummation of their marriage. It is 1962, and the so-called Swinging Sixties are beyond the horizon, with Britain still in the grip of sexual inhibition.
As the two make small, uncomfortable steps towards the dreaded moment of culmination, the film flits backwards in time to show their developing relationship, giving small hints and clues as to the true nature of their neuroses. Florence is the rebellious daughter of high-and-mighty parents (Emily Watson and Samuel West) who scoff at her suggestion of marrying Edward due to his degree from UCL, a university “for the sons of tradesmen!”. Edward’s father is a primary school headmaster, and his mother lives at home due to an accident which has left her with a severe mental condition.
The two speak in great comfort about their past, with Florence asking of her beloved “Tell me something” as a barely-suppressed plea to escape from their increasingly awkward progress towards the marital bed and back into the warm glow of their romanticised love story. These sweeping and beautifully-scored flashbacks are contrasted starkly with refrains to the cool quiet of the hotel room, where every sound is a discomforting faux-pas. Distant waves, a ticking clock, the unbearable creaking of bed springs are all kindling for Edward’s broiling frustration and Florence’s searing terror.
Their interactions (excruciating small talk at the dinner table, Edward’s clumsy attempts to remove Florence’s clothing piece-by-piece) indicate two people who’ve never met, let alone shared a bed. The connection between knowing a person and knowing their body is a bridge too far for a young couple whose conflicting life experiences and entrapment within a patriarchal society prevent them from reaching out to each other. Edward, fresh from the beer-fuelled freedom of university life, feels compelled to assert himself as a man. Florence’s largely sheltered upbringing (her only escapes are leading a string quartet and earnestly attending CND protests) leaves her unprepared for real intimacy, and her reaction to a ludicrously clinical book about sex turns from comic to tragic.
As a strong advocate for her standing as the finest actor of her generation, I’d walk across hot coals to watch Saoirse Ronan in anything. Her performance as Florence indulges her usual penchant for emoting the most nuanced of emotions entirely through her eyes, and a screenplay that lives or dies on the most subtle body movements seems tailor-made for her. Billy Howle, too, thrives on these moments of near-silence, his uneasy breathing and trembling fingers saying more than pages of dialogue ever could. Anne-Marie Duff is delicate and restrained in the role of Edward’s confused and often disruptive mother, and Adrian Scarborough is reliably wan. I’m convinced Emily Watson could play the role of “posho looking down her nose at everyone”, and her brief appearance here, along with Samuel West as her husband, is one of the few in the film that smacks of caricature.
Cooke’s extensive theatre background lends the scenes outside the hotel bedroom a distinctly stagy feel, with plenty of long, unbroken takes. But it’s in the small background details (clouds obscure the skies as clothes cover flesh) and a remarkable affinity for close-ups that Cooke and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt find their stride. Everything the audience needs to know can be found in a foot tapping the carpet in anticipation, fingers tightening around a wine glass, or a jump cut from the first daisy to the marriage bouquet.
Edward and Florence are afforded equal development and screen-time, and this tightrope act ensures neither are assigned blame when the tension finally snaps. Both are presented as clear victims of a system that places the pride of men and subservience of women over the freedom of either to live freely, and everything from the dream-like aura of their love-at-first-sight romance to the final confrontation on the windswept coastline serves as a brilliant period piece and a heart-wrenching tale of unrequited empathy.
At least, that is, until the final twenty minutes brings everything crashing down. Two extended epilogues turn this unpicking of love on the cusp of sexual liberation into little more than a slightly weightier Nicholas Sparks adaptation. Unspoken regrets, character exploration, delicate and precise performances are all undone by a reversion to sickly sweet sentiment. One supposes this particular passage works better in the novel, but in the film it comes across as a fanciful concoction of pathos at best, and a betrayal of the preceding tragedy at worst.