Director: Dominic Cooke
Writer: Ian McEwan (based on his novel)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson
In 1962, early 20s newlyweds Edward (Howle) and Florence (Ronan) spend their honeymoon in a Dorset hotel and both look back on their pasts. Both are equally terrified by the upcoming consummation of their marriage but for different reasons, it leads to their seemingly idyllic romance turning into a deeply uncomfortable and fateful night together that will haunt both of them for the rest of their lives.
Us British are famed for having the stiff upper lip approach to repress most things that are slightly taboo, and in the 1960s I believe this was far more prevalent, and this film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel is a suitably sensitive and effectively low-key examination of sexual freedom and societal pressure during this era, as well as the naivety and misunderstanding that we have all been guilty of demonstrating in our early 20s.
The narrative is told through a series of flashbacks as the two young newlyweds from different socio-economic backgrounds get increasingly awkward and prickly as the moment where they must both lose their virginity to one-another gets ever nearer. Do they both genuinely want to? Or are they just doing what society has lead them both to do what they believe they should be doing on their wedding night? Some flashbacks are of the two of them reminiscing of much happier and more care-free times that they spent together, while others are just of one of them, and these have played a part in shaping their individual ideologies and sexual attitudes. While subplots featuring their respective families also further help to develop their characters; Florence’s mother is a snob and her father an over-aggressive brute, while Edward’s mother is a talented artist with a severe mental disorder due to being hit by an opening door of a moving train – one off the film’s more shocking moments.
This structure basically makes the film feel like a play and is very effective at examining the two main characters and why they both now feel the way they do, while the fact that this encounter develops at a very slow pace also emphasises the prolonged feeling of nervousness and fear that they are both experiencing. The film asks many pertinent questions as it unfolds at its intentionally measured pace, and its low-key tone effectively reflects the repressive sexual attitudes of society at this time.
The performances are also very strong; both Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle deliver committed and suitably understated performances that allow the audience to understand and sympathise with their characters even more, while the supporting cast all deliver strong performances, making sure that despite having only a few scenes, their individual characters are suitably memorable.
Visually, On Chesil Beach is also very well put together by director Dominic Cooke (in his feature length debut) and with the aid of Sean Bobbitt’s stunning cinematography the visuals often supplement the tone and mood of the characters, with light summery colours for a lot of the flashbacks and doomy grey colours for the film’s main scene set on Dorset’s Chesil Beach. The open expanse of this geographical phenomenon effectively enhancing the loneliness and isolation that both characters feel, and one particular distant shot of the two of them is a little cliched, but still effective.
However, it does feel at times that On Chesil Beach is a little too competently made at times and never wants to take any risks, and though repression is of course one of its key themes, this approach does at times undermine the film’s potential power and so produces an experience that is not quite as satisfying or memorable as it should be. It is a film with a lot of potential scope in terms of the themes that it examines, some of which are potentially quite dark, while though we may not be able to quite empathise with the time setting, we can with early 20s naivety and hastiness that both characters demonstrate. However, the film just does not go anywhere near as far as it potentially could have done and takes a little too long for the big confrontation at the film’s titular setting to actually happen. On Chesil Beach is certainly a film that is worth watching and very watchable while on, but given its stoic tone, should have just done more with its potential, and sadly it will not live long in the memory.
A competently made and very well acted drama. However, despite its undeniable competence On Chesil Beach lacks enough conviction in its examination of some very pertinent and potentially powerful themes to be a truly memorable film.