Film review by Jason Day of On Chesil Beach, the drama about newlyweds navigating the physical side of marital life. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle.
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It’s the early 1960’s and Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Howle) have just married. Both come from difficult backgrounds. Florence’s household is ruled by a domineering father (Samuel West) and nobbish mother (Emily Watson). Edward’s home is marked by the mental instability of his mother (Anne-Marie Duff).
Despite being deeply in love and committed to each other, they find consummating their union a troubling one. Florence is terrified about the physical act of penetration and Edward’s lack of experience in the bedroom means he is unable to assuage her fears and romantically seduce her.
Honeymooning at a stifling, oppressive hotel on Chesil Beach, Dorest, their marriage is on the rocks just a few hours in.
Review by @Reelreviewer
And you thought your post-Covid staycation was uncomfortable?!
Check out the poor, romantically beleaguered couple Florence and Edward in this intense but rewarding drama about a conjugal crisis that threatens to consume a fledgling marriage.
From the outset, it’s worth noting that Ronan yet again proves her mettle as an actor of power and subtlety. Florence isn’t the easiest of characters to warm to – terrified of the physical side of sex (not helped by 1950’s sex education books that describe the act in the most brutal and unromantic of terms), she expertly retains her dignity whilst keeping a horny husband at an admirable arms length.
Her outward frigidity and mental composure are contrasted with Edward’s brain-damaged mother (Anne-Marie Duff) who walks around her house bare-breasted.
From Mary, Queen of Scots (2018) to Little Women (2019), there is hardly a character she cannot entirely inhabit and make her own.
Howle, as her outwardly strong but callow husband, manages to not be entirely outshone by her in the less showy support role.
Director Cooke uses these two performers superbly during several wincing, failure ‘no sex’ scenes. The clumsy couple aren’t helped by the torpid, slightly sleazy seafront hotel they honeymoon in.
The ‘silver service’ waiters are as hapless as Florence and Edward, spilling a bottle of wine and topping it up with lukewarm tap water.
In the bridal suite they stand ominously behind the dining newlyweds, ostensibly to serve but for Florence and Edward they are unwanted observers passing silent comment (when they leave, they laugh loudly at Edwards criminal faux pas – he forgets to tip).
All of this culminates in the most gauche fumbling – overly excited Edward ejaculates over Florence’s leg, resulting in her swift flight.
I haven’t read the book – by famed author Ian McEwan (Atonement) – but I can readily see how this narrative suits the page rather than the film reel.
It’s a thought-based story and, commendable though it is screenwriter McEwan has ‘opened up’ the story, it remains completely uncinematic. There are no grand moments, no scenes where camera, direction and editing tell the story. Meaning and our reactions are left entirely to the written word.
Here is the problem – I felt distinctly unmoved by these words, the characters and proceedings. It’s set up to be an ’emotional tragedy’, but I wasn’t deeply invested in Florence and Edward’s problems.
As Edward tugs furtively at Florence’s underwear, I felt McEwan’s script likewise bothered my mind…he was trying to ‘go there’, but I wasn’t convinced enough to let him (and, by natural extension, the filmmakers) ‘all the way in’ to my ‘special place’.
Sod off Edward/Cooke/McEwan and leave me alone…I have a cinematic and literal headache!
Perhaps this is all because I’m looking at the story from the perspective of a man in 2020 who, quite frankly, just got annoyed with the characters’ naivety and difficulty talking to each other.
Of course, without this, there is no drama. But I needed more convincing that their artificially contrived, overly worded relationship breakdown was at all believable.
Maybe McEwan, as screenwriter of his own source material is the issue; this can be a double-edged sword for a movie’s success.
Yes, they know their work inside and out so there is no problem conveying the themes and subtleties of their text to the silver screen.
But are they too close to the source material to provide a thorough cinematic translation?
I’d argue that – even with his considerable authorial skills – with On Chesil Beach, McEwan might not have been the right man for this particular job.
Cast & credits
Director: Dominic Cooke. 1hr 50 mins/110 mins. BBC Films/Number 9 Films/Golan Films.
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley.
Writer: Ian McEwan.
Camera: Sean Bobbitt.
Music: Dan Jones.
Sets: Suzie Davies.
Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Samuel West, Emily Watson, Anton Lesser, Mia Burgess, Anna Burgess, Bebe Cave.