On Chesil Beach Review

A novel is a novel, and a movie is a movie. A novel can be turned into a movie, but to do so successfully, it must surrender certain properties of the page to better suit the screen. This seems obvious, but it bears repeating because this common sense seemed to escape Ian McEwan when adapting his own novella On Chesil Beach for the cinema. By keeping a literary structure intact, the film is dead on arrival.

The main action of the film follows – or at least attempts to follow – the ill-fated honeymoon of young lovers Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) as they struggle to consummate their fresh matrimony at a British seaside retreat. Both approach sex with a fair amount of trepidation, retreating inside the security of their own minds at crucial junctures along the journey to their marital bed. Once Edward kisses her with the zeal of a child licking a spatula, it’s clear the two are in for a rough time. Yet very time the evening nears a point of intrigue, On Chesil Beach cuts to a flashback, often offering a primer on why a character is acting the way they are. The filmmaking thus becomes bludgeoning and patronizing to any intelligent viewer, assuming they need rationale and motivations spelled out for them.

The staccato editing rhythm that develops over the course of the film proves most jarring. Director Dominic Cooke can never keep the tension because McEwan’s script prevents the primary storyline to gain any steam as it hurdles towards its climax. (Pun fully intended.) The flashbacks of On Chesil Beach are less explanatory than they are expository, gradually laying out Florence and Edward’s entire life story leading up to their nuptials. On screen, these details need not be conveyed quite so literally. With the expressive capabilities of a great actor or the keen eye of a perceptive camera, a film can show this information to audiences without explicitly telling them. It’s one of the key differentiators of the cinematic medium, and McEwan all but takes its power off the table.

At times, the digressions of On Chesil Beach do line up effectively with the escalation of Florence and Edward’s first night as man and wife. And by the third act of the film, the flashbacks all but cease, leaving the two actors fully in the main moment – which they seize with the single-minded focus of stage thespians. Ronan is radiant as a young girl trying to square patriarchal expectations of her role as a “doorway” to please men with the unconventional satisfaction she seeks in their relationship. Meanwhile, Howle achieves a tricky balancing act, portraying Edward as boyish and immature without going full man-child. He sports bangs that nearly cover his eyes, almost as if he doesn’t know how to comb it out of his face. The boyish unkemptness of his look matches his timid personality.

When On Chesil Beach finally reaches Florence and Edward’s reckoning, the sparks fly madly as all the pent-up tension from the years shown in their flashbacks spews out onto the shore. The confrontation is enough to at least partially redeem some of the tedium that preceded it, in no small part because Ronan is again a force of nature once the angry tears start to flow. Yet their sparring could still land just as devastating a blow without all the preparatory scenes leading up to it. In fact, it would even make Ronan and Howle’s performances shine all the brighter. But with no subtlety or innuendo, their verbal outpouring feels like a foregone conclusion rather than a revelatory conversation.

/Film rating: 5 out of 10

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Marshall's work has been featured on FSR, LWL, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Christian Science Monitor, Vague Visages & Movie Mezzanine. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs.