UK Release Date: 18th May 2018
Runtime: 110 minutes
Director: Dominic Cooke
Writer: Ian McEwan
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Anne-Marie Duff, Emily Watson, Adrian Scarborough, Samuel West
Synopsis: A young couple have an awkward bedroom experience on their wedding night at a secluded seaside hotel, while flashbacks reveal the events in their life that led them to this moment.
It’s a stereotype that British people are repressed and buttoned-up about sex. As a nation, we’re considered to be queasy about these matters and unwilling to discuss them frankly. Confronted by a reference to sex, we do a filthy Sid James giggle, find the nearest innuendo in our minds and give them one – chortle-chortle-giggle-snigger. Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize nominated novella On Chesil Beach, set in the 1960s before the explosion of free love and the gravy train of psychedelic drugs, deals with precisely this subject, though its film adaptation is every bit as repressed and awkward as its characters.
Directed by first-time feature helmsman Dominic Cooke – an Olivier winner for his theatre directing work – the film, with a screenplay by McEwan himself, works very hard indeed to expand the slim story to feature length. Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) are a newlywed young couple, spending their wedding night in a secluded hotel at the side of the eponymous Dorset beauty spot. In flashback, their relationship is revealed, as the action repeatedly returns to the increasingly uncomfortable evening – in which the prospect of consummating the marriage brings both parties great anxiety, leading to a barrage of revelations and secrets that come tumbling out.
The first hour of On Chesil Beach is bizarre viewing. There’s an intriguing tension to the scenes in the hotel, but this entirely dissipates whenever the frequent flashbacks intrude. The scenes are designed to add texture and colour to the lives of the characters, but they shed little light on why the characters act in the way they do and just slow things down. The real meat of that story is in the hotel and out on the beach, where a dramatic confrontation seems to drive a wedge between the two of them in a stark portrayal of a relationship in which repression masked issues that could prove fatal for the union.
Ronan carries much of the heavy-lifting in this pivotal scene and her Oscar-nommed class is clear for all to see. She takes a complicated role and invests it with real care and attention, as well as a near-perfect English accent. Unfortunately, once the revelation is unveiled and the story flashes forward in time, it’s the considerably less convincing Howle – best known as the young Jim Broadbent in The Sense of an Ending – who takes centre stage. It all culminates in a scene of ageing make-up so horrendous that it resembles a 1980s body horror film rather than a gentle, middle class drama.
Most damningly, though, the conventional structure of the ending and the slightly-too-nice tone of the entire film leaves On Chesil Beach cowering away from the surprising frankness of McEwan’s story. It’s as if the film itself is as terrified of confronting its feelings as the central couple. When Howle’s character describes Ronan in a flashback as “the squarest person in all of Western civilisation”, it’s as if he has turned Deadpool-like to camera and aimed his criticism right back at the film itself.
Pop or Poop?
There’s plenty of material worth bringing to the fore in On Chesil Beach, but it often feels like a story that might have been better if it had stayed on the page. Saoirse Ronan does solid work, only to be scuppered by unnecessary flashbacks and dreadful make-up that undercuts the emotion of the final scene beyond repair.
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