Film Review: On Chesil Beach
For most of us who read it and wept, Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach has become a bookshelf essential. Published in 2007 to rave reviews, this heart-rending novel has finally made the transition to the big screen – and Storytellhers went to a preview.
A delicate tale of a doomed marriage, the drama unfolds on a rocky Dorset beach just a few hours after the wedding. Florence and Edward, the young couple at the heart of the story, are each a victim of family tragedy. They’re also victims of an era – the early 1960’s – when psychological grievances were not aired, shared and healed. During a toe-curlingly awkward attempt to consummate their marriage in a hotel room, we’re drawn into a series of flashbacks that gently illustrate the events that stunted them. Back in the present, the argument has spilled onto a stormy Chesil Beach, and one of them desperately attempts a pact that will change the course of their lives forever.
Starring Saoirse Ronan as Florence and Billy Howle as Edward, On Chesil Beach is an uncomfortable watch. The initial scenes are skillfully stilted, McEwan’s screenplay and Dominic Cooke’s direction utterly faithful to how sexually repressed young men and women of that era would have behaved. The film softly treads back and forth in time, hinting at deep reservoirs of tangled feeling. Florence suffers under the weight of a domineering father and a cold, Conservative mother; Edward clings to normality in the wake of his mother being brain-damaged (a shock moment that will take your breath away).
The final third of the film allows the subsequent decades to unravel - the unfortunate consequences of that fateful conversation on their wedding day. It was hard not to wallow in their pain, fighting back our own tears at an age of innocence and an opportunity missed.