On Chesil Beach ★

On Chesil Beach is the eleventh cinematic adaptation of one of Ian McEwan‘s literary works, which McEwan himself based the screenplay on his 2007 novella of the same name. Set in 1962, the film focuses on the wedding night of Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and his young bride (Saoirse Ronan)


Many writers constantly edit, and re-edit their work, and some retrospectively add more information than sometimes necessary (as with J.K. Rowling retrospectively adding more information to her Harry Potter series via the ‘Pottermore’ website). Truthfully, On Chesil Beach is a perfect example of when this goes badly: McEwan, adapting his own work, has written a screenplay that does not translate well to the big screen. The dialogue-heavy film inches forward at a snail’s pace, leaving those watching in the cinema with an itching desire to repeatedly check the time – I have never once seen a theatre filled with so many people on their phones. That is not to say that every writer adapting their own work for the big screen will do a bad job of it: Stephen Chbosky brilliantly adapted the screenplay for his novel, The Perks of Being a Wallflower– which has very much become a cult-classic. As demonstrated by Christopher Hampton‘s Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for Atonement – another popular Ian McEwan novel – one could assume that it is not solely the source material for On Chesil Beach that is at fault.

As for the film’s plot itself, it left a bad taste in my mouth. The film takes place in the present (in this case, 1962 Dorset), and jumps between the wedding night of Edward and Florence – where there is an incredibly slow-burn towards the couple consummating their marriage – and flashbacks establishing the two as characters, and major points in the couple’s relationship. We see how the pair meet: Edward, the somewhat unappreciated eldest son, receives his degree classification results, and in a bid to find someone who will listen, jumps on the bus to Oxford – it is there that he meets the talented Florence. As we learn through the flashbacks, Florence appears to be almost perfect in every way: she’s a beautiful young woman, with an incredible talent for music, and with a kindly, selfless soul; even Edward’s father tells him to “marry that girl” upon Florence’s patient care-giving towards Edward’s disabled mother. There is only one glaring flaw in the pair’s relationship: Florence does not want to have sex while Edward does.

There is a particular scene in the film that made for such uncomfortable viewing that had I been watching it at home, I would have turned the film off. It is absolutely undeniable that Florence does not want to have to sleep with her new husband; she does all she can to prolong the inevitable (including an incredibly awkward roast beef dinner), and the audience feels just as helpless as Florence as we watch the events unfold on screen. After the world’s most awkward kiss, we watch as Edward abandons his attempt at fully undressing Florence, and attempts to sleep with her whilst the couple are still clothed. Clearly, the director – Dominic Cooke‘s- intention for this scene was for it to be as awkward for the audience as it is for the characters, and it is somewhat a necessary inclusion for the later plot, but nevertheless, there is really no need to have elongated the scene for as long as it is. Just as much could have been achieved in a shorter, less graphic time frame.

I must admit that I was quite surprised by the inclusion of such a scene – the film’s marketing campaign had been virtually non-existent, and this is the type of independent film that depends on word-of-mouth promotion. I had had several conversations from people excited to see the film, praising it for its inclusion of an asexual character in the form of Florence Ponting. It is this unaddressed misconception of the film that was partly the reason why I left with a bad taste in my mouth: in a split-second clip whilst the newlyweds are attempting to consummate their marriage, it is implied that when Florence was a child, she was sexually abused by her father. This vital piece of information is shown for just a few seconds, and then never once addressed again. This, added to the fact that we learn that Florence eventually marries her fellow Oxford-graduate quartet member and has children with him sends two bad messages if one has read into the (misguided) hype of this film showcasing an asexual lead. #1: One could misconstrue the inclusion of the buried abuse plot-point as an indication that all people whom are not interested in sex have been abused, or are ‘damaged’ in some way, rather than they’re just not interested in sex, and #2: that if one is patience and persistent, people expressing no desire in having sex may eventually relent – which is quite condescending to those who identify as asexual.

Furthermore, On Chesil Beach has an incredibly cliché plot. After Edward leaves Florence on Chesil Beach, the film flashes forward to the 1970s. Now, Edward works in a record shop where he is confronted by a sprightly young red-headed girl that requests an album for her mother’s birthday gift. It is abundantly clear as soon as the little girl enters his shop whom her mother is; the presence of the vivid red-hair is a giveaway on its own before the audience even realises that the record that she requests is one referenced earlier in the film as a surprise favourite of Florence – after Edward’s influence – whom usually prefers classical music. It is clumsy, clichéd dialogue that follows when Edward learns that the little girl’s name is Chloe: the name in which Florence had requested they name their future daughter, if they had one. It is this scene in which McEwan really lets himself down: it is wholly unnecessary to have to establish the little girl’s name.

After the realisation that Florence has married and had a child, the film flashes forward again. It had been during one of the flashbacks that Edward professes to Florence that if she and her string quartet ever do play at the particular theatre where she used to work, he would be right there, in the middle of the row, watching. From this unsubtle line of foreshadowing, one could easily tell that that was likely to be the film’s ending. Now in their sixties, Edward (played still by Howle, having donned truly awful aging make-up) sits clapping along and crying at the final performance of Florence’s very successful quartet. Clearly the film’s ending is supposed to have an emotional impact, but it falls flat; this is an ending seen multiple times in movies – especially over the past few years – and thus it is not only expected, it is a boring climax. What’s more, it is hard to take the emotion of the film’s ending seriously when the two leads are wearing such awfully unrealistic aging prosthetics. Truthfully, the film’s ending felt nothing more than an eerily similar, low-budget version of Damien Chazelle‘s La La Land (2016).

The cast of On Chesil Beach, however, were delightful, and the film boasts an eclectic mix of both well-established and emerging actors; the performances were the most memorable takeaway form the film. Three-time Academy Award nominated Saoirse Ronan, fresh from a slew of recent award nominations for her title role in Lady Bird, should be a tantalising draw for today’s audiences; at just twenty-four, Ronan is already fast-becoming a household name, and boasts an impressive filmography for one so young. Considering Ronan’s break-out role – and first Academy Award nomination – was for her work on Atonement, another McEwan adaptation, it would not be far-fetched to have expected grand things from Ronan’s performance as Cooke’s leading lady, Florence Ponting.

Ronan’s Florence is visually striking on screen; her long auburn hair, and the powder blue wedding dress worn in the honeymoon scenes, cut a salient visual against the bleak beige of the eponymous Chesil Beach – Florence is elegantly beautiful, almost ethereal looking. Ronan’s piercing steel eyes, as always, are utterly hypnotising, and one cannot help but to strongly empathise with her character; Ronan expertly conveys Florence’s inner anguish through a deftly raised eyebrow, or a wide imploring stare.

In the past, Ronan has shown a considerable mastery of an array of accents; although she is American-Irish by birth, Ronan’s natural Irish accent is strong – her American accent in Lady Bird was incredibly authentic, and the same can be said for her convincing German accent for her leading role opposite Cate Blanchett, in Hanna. Ronan’s accent in On Chesil Beach, however, is a different story. Florence’s plummy R.P. British accent often sounds whiny, and becomes irksome early in the film’s runtime. Ronan painfully over-enunciates every word, and it distracts from the delivery of the dialogue.

Despite her distracting accent, Ronan does manage to deliver a decent performance: Florence is incredibly likable on screen, and the emotional final confrontation between the newlyweds is gut-wrenching to watch. One can’t help but feel the monumental sense of loss and hurt that Ronan, as Florence, expertly exudes. Perhaps with an improved direction and script, Ronan’s role as Florence Ponting could have been noted as one of her most memorable.

The other half of the film’s couple is Edward Mayhew as portrayed by emerging British actor Billy Howle. This is the first of two collaborations between Mayhew and Ronan this year; both star alongside Annette Benning in Michael Mayer’s cinematic adaptation of Chekov’s The Seagull. On Chesil Beach is just Howle’s third feature film – his first in a lead role – and his performance establishes him as one of Britain’s rising stars to watch. Regardless of any concerns with the film’s plot or dialogue, Howle takes what is offered to him, and runs with it; his performance as Edward is one of raw, powerful emotion. There is certainly a great relatability to wanting to be recognised for one’s hard-work, which lead Edward to his first meeting with Florence. Furthermore, Edward is, initially, extremely likable: Howle brilliantly plays Edward as a foppish but flawed young man. Despite the shock in his decision to just walk away from his bride, one can’t help but initially feel at least a tad sorry for him – which is a true mark of Howle’s fantastic performance.

The stand-out star performance in On Chesil Beach, however, comes from a surprising supporting source rather than from the two leads: Anne-Marie Duff, in her role as Edward’s mother, Marjorie Mayhew. For those of us unfamiliar with the source material prior to seeing the film, it comes as quite a shock when we are first introduced to her; we learn that Marjorie was once an enlightened painter but was shockingly hit in the head by an open train door which resulted in serious brain damage. Duff takes on the role of Marjorie with a great elegance and sensitivity and she steals every scene with her heart-breaking portrayal. Marjorie’s tendency for nudity both shocks and saddens, when compared to the vibrant woman we see briefly pre-accident. In fact, it is one of Duff’s most memorable scenes which really emphasises the magnitude of Edward’s decision to annul his marriage: in the first scene between Florence and Marjorie, Edward preemptively warns Florence that his mother won’t remember her. Despite this warning, Florence selflessly goes out of her way to connect with her – such is Florence’s pure nature, and her love for Edward. She finds Marjorie stark naked in the living room, and immediately doesn’t hesitate to gently cover her, as well as then proceeding to bond with her by re-creating her favourite painting. The creative choice to show Duff naked is an enlightened one that is wholly necessary for the characterisation of Duff’s Marjorie as well as the two leads – it is tastefully done with no hint of lewdness. Furthermore, it is when talking about the painting that Marjorie comes alive. A spark of passion lights up her eyes and she talks animatedly compared to the quieter side of her character, suffering quietly with a family that is emotionally exhausted by her needs. This scene, led by Duff’s magnificent performance, is integral for the emotional impact of the film: Marjorie needs patience and understanding due to her disability, which Florence does not hesitate to provide – such is her kindly, self-less nature. The fact that Edward walks away from this woman who is so clearly devoted to him is just distressing to witness.

Often, a mediocre film can be elevated by the presence of a stellar soundtrack such as Carter Burwell’s composition for Twilight. On paper, Dan Jones‘ impressive list of award wins for his television compositions would perhaps instill faith in the production of a savant in soundtrack form. This faith, however, would be misguided. Truthfully, there is nothing particularly wrong with Jones’ soundtrack – it flows seamlessly with what unfolds on screen – nonetheless, there is also absolutely nothing unique about it, either: it is a quintessential British soundtrack that would be just as suited to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society or an episode of Poldark as it would to this film. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a film’s soundtrack emulating a common over-arching sound of a genre, but one would at least hope for a hint of memorabilityAlas, this is just not the case with On Chesil Beach. Jones’ recent success with his Ivor Novello award-winning soundtrack to the BBC’s SS-GB proves he is a capable composer, but perhaps akin to director Dominic Cooke, Jones’ work may be best suited to accompany other visual mediums, instead staying away from further cinematic outings. 

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