On Chesil Beach doesn’t quite rise up to to the level of previous adaptations of Ian McEwan’s works.
Set in 1962, this is a film that can be very confusing to follow. We eventually learn that Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) just got married a few hours earlier. They are planning to consummate their marriage at a hotel along Chesil Beach in southern England on the Dorset coast. However, Florence realizes that she can’t go through with it and runs out of the room. This leads to her new husband, Edward, to chase after her to a remote area of the beach.
Florence and Edward come from two very different upbringings. Florence plays the violin in a string quartet and was educated at Oxford. Her parents run to the conservative side. Meanwhile, Edward received his degree at the University of Central London and wants to be an author some day. Edward’s mother suffers from brain-damage following an accident. It’s almost as if their relationship was to be doomed from the get-go.
McEwan’s screenplay follows Florence and Edward on their wedding night. Throughout the evening, the script jumps back in time over the preceding months of their courtship. Maybe it is easier to follow in the book but McEwan’s non-linear storytelling for the first half of the film makes for a confusing narrative to follow. The flashbacks continue to play out until a flash forward to 1975 and and a jump to 2007 when everything starts to come full circle.
One of the best parts of having On Chesil Beach set in the 1960s is a rocking soundtrack. The opening beats of the film’s score sets the film up with a bluesy and jazzy tone but the film never lives up to those expectations. Set two years before The Beatles hit it big, the film largely depends on the late Chuck Berry, who Florence describes as “bouncy and merry,” for the rock and roll tunes. Florence’s comments are called back later in an emotional moment coming late in the film.
Saoirse Ronan’s breakthrough performance came in a film based on an Ian McEwan novel. The Oscar-nominated actress doesn’t deliver a bad performance here even if Ronan herself has admitted to running on empty by the time in which filming started. Interestingly enough, this isn’t the first time in which Ronan and Billy Howle have played a couple. They played a couple in a recently-released film from Sony Pictures Classics, The Seagull, that was filmed before this film. It’s more so that the material lets the actors down than anything else. Again, this goes back to the way in which the period drama is crafted.
The long takes on the part of director Dominic Cooke in the hotel and on the beach enable the performances to give off more of a theatrical vibe rather than a cinematic one. It’s very well possible that On Chesil Beach could have played better on a stage than the cinema.
Ultimately, On Chesil Beach is a film that deals with how young people have so many social pressures placed onto them by society.
DIRECTOR: Dominic Cooke
SCREENWRITER: Ian McEwan
CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson, and Samuel West
Following its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, Bleecker Street released On Chesil Beach in select theaters on May 18, 2018 with a theatrical expansion to follow.