Film Review: On Chesil Beach

After several false starts, Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize-nominated 2007 novella finally makes it to the big screen with director Dominic Cooke at the the helm.

This isn’t the first attempt to bring On Chesil Beach to the screen; an aborted effort around 2010 would have starred Kate Winslet with then-husband Sam Mendes behind the camera. Making the transition from stage to screen for his debut feature, Cooke’s adaptation is rich with period detail, a script by McEwan himself and a fine cast led by Saoirse Ronan in a demanding role.

There’s a certain staginess at play, and the film’s timeline-jumping narrative can be frustrating along with a tendency to think that two protagonists shouting at each other constitutes powerful drama.

Florence Ponting (Ronan, McEwan’s own choice) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) are seen in a Dorset hotel after their wedding ceremony, and we know that they’re trying to do and say anything to distract themselves from getting down to the deed. They’re both virgins and, while smart and virtuous university types, they’re also capable of acting like silly, cruel kids, and McEwan’s script adopts a tricky structure where we investigate how exactly they got into this tense situation.

Florence is a music student with snobby parents (Samuel West and an almost overacting Emily Watson) while Edward is a high-minded history major with a family troubled by the fact that his mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) has a brain injury that results in embarrassing behaviours. Of course, as it’s early 1960s England, everyone tries desperately to pretend otherwise.

As we’re shown how Florence and Edward met and began to cautiously enjoy an affectionate but sexless relationship, we also watch as they get closer and closer to engaging in actual fornication, and the tension and discomfort levels rise to the point where this almost feels like a suspenseful psychological thriller.

Despite fine work from the leads and a fairly brutal final act that deviates from and simplifies McEwan’s book, the film nonetheless struggles somewhat to bring the author’s dark story to life – even though he wrote the screenplay himself.

On Chesil Beach is in cinemas Thursday, August 9

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