The pebble beaches, brooding grey skies and that familiar reserved English melancholy of Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach have been meticulously translated into film, adapted by the author himself and directed by Dominic Cooke, this being his debut feature film. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as the polite yet passionately in love pair, it’s a tender ode to what it’s like to fall in love in your early twenties.
On Chesil Beach is the story of Florence and Edward, two young graduates who are about to be married in the summer of 1962. Florence is a fiercely talented and ambitious violinist from a upper-middle class family, daughter to a factory owner (Samuel West) and a philosophy professor (Emily Watson). Edward is just as wickedly smart but from far humbler beginnings.
His father (Adrian Scarborough) is a schoolmaster and his mother, unable to work due to terrible head injury she suffered when Edward was a child, exists in a child-like state of confusion. Both lovers are incredibly self-assured in a way that is only possible in your twenties and share many a self-congratulatory exchange.
On the night of their wedding, the pair go to bed as virgins with the nervous anticipation of sexual intimacy looming, only for the night to evolve into a wholly humiliating experience. The humiliation of their wedding night reveals itself to be a precursor to a lifetime of failure for Edward, as the movie skips back and forth across their lives.
The film is littered with flashbacks, taking us away from the present of their wedding night in a hotel on Chesil Beach and charters their blooming relationship. Through those flashbacks we get a real feel for how they operate as a couple; how they meet, how they became engaged and we get an insight into just how alike they are, so much so you end up deeply invested into their success of their relationship.
On Chesil Beach is set in a repressed time and is a story of repressed people. Every single flashback is in stark contrast to the central scene; the once happy and relaxed couple are now, on their wedding night, crippled by generational pressures surrounding sex and intimacy.
Until the movie crescendos into it’s humiliating twist, the movie plods along at a rather steady pace. The film heaves it’s way through the intertwining of two lives as they come together and discover one another.
Edward is a budding intellectual which a penchant for street fighting; Howle has all the ruggedly handsome features of a leading man that can appear to be painfully forlorn when required. Florence wants Edward to stop fighting and on their wedding night he finally makes his promise to stop. All seems to be going well as the pair finally seem ready to consummate their marriage, until Florence makes a confession to Edward that breaks his heart.
All of the above may sound boring but it’s really not. On Chesil Beach takes a sharp jab at the absurd concept of the ‘virginal bride’ and the hypocrisy of elders who peddle their repressive ideals whilst adhering to none. Watson’s matriarchal nightmare is the perfect showcase for this and occasionally offers some comic relief in what is mostly a heavily melancholic feature.
Neither Edward nor Florence are equipped with the vocabulary to express their fears and doubts, and instead fall back on shy double entendre. There’s more to life than just sex and yet somehow sex can overwhelm everything, a dilemma that On Chesil Beach plays out perfectly.
Edward and Florence are the protagonists but by no means is this their stand alone story. The narrative of their lives is so tightly bound to the idiosyncrasies of their parents, who oppressive vines weave themselves around the lives of their children. In that sense McEwan’s story is an exposition of the damage done by parents to their children.
Some relief is to be had in the final few minutes as the film jumps forward in time to 2007, when all that suppressed emotion of the last hour comes flooding onto the screen. At last we see open and honest engagement between the characters, a sign of the times perhaps. There’s a feeling that this emotional revolution has come a little too late for Florence and Edward and you can’t help wondering how different their relationship might have been had they been born a few years later. This film is a brooding elegy to what romance was like when your grandparents were young. Thank God times have changed.