Based on the novel by Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach explores typical motifs for this author: bad decisions that affect the rest of life, regret, disappointment, loneliness. Dominic Cooke has created a successful, maybe a bit theatrical adaptation, which will appeal to fans of sad but touching stories.
For the main part of On Chesil Beach, we visit a cheap, seaside hotel in Dorset in 1962. Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn, Lady Bird) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle, Dunkirk) spend their wedding night there. Earlier that day they got married and it is their first big night they will spend on their own. The hotel is not too luxurious, and the waiters working in it make a joke out of a young couple, adding only nervousness to the mood of the newlyweds.
Florence and Edward behave as if they were on a first date, or just got to know each other after their families had matched them together. Soon, however, it will turn out that these young, friendly people are tense as they were standing before the high court because they have never had sex before. The first night is meant to be a loss of virginity for both of them, but it will turn out to be something much more complicated.
Before we’ll approach the finale, the director, using flashbacks, move us back to the beginnings of their relationship and creates a subtle psychological portrait of characters and the era in which they lived. Edward comes from a working class, he just got to study in London and would like to leave the house where his mother (Anne-Marie Duff), suffering from a mental disorder after an unfortunate accident at the railway station platform, is the centre of attention. The boy does not have too many friends, and accidentally met Florence when he was looking for someone to talk to.
This two have hardly anything in common – neither the origin (she comes from the upper middle class, her mother, played by Emily Watson, acts like an aristocrat), nor interests (he listens to rock ‚n’ roll, she is passionate about classical music and plays the violin), nor ambitions and life goals. But still, they are extremely nice, understanding and most importantly, a lovely couple of young people who will probably cope with the problems that await them in their lives. If only they overcome the one that appeared on the first day of the marriage.
Living in an era in which sex talks are taboo because the sexual revolution will start in a few years, not equipped with this knowledge by parents or school, both are about to be disappointed. Not with sex, but with their approach to the act. Young age, lack of maturity, stupid pride and inexperience will eventually lead to some decisions that will change their lives forever. Towards the end, they are symbolically surrounded by the sea, on a small peninsula. Just like in life they have nowhere to go but back. Will they take this road together?
On Chesil Beach is not a film that boasts about the production design or incredible locations. This is a character-driven movie. Actors playing main parts are superb, as well as parents in supporting roles. Ronan and Howle perfectly reflect the dilemmas of their protagonists, their ills and frustrations – they are completely credible, which is the key to success in portraying such a personal story. The use of flashbacks is perhaps not original, but it is done with tact and works great in slowly revealing the complicated portrayal of both characters. The bittersweet mood looms over the film but the end falls a bit too deep into melodramatic tones of disappointment and sadness.
The details of the era, from costumes and interiors, are fantastic. The use of words and linguistic expressions is spot on, it not only defines characters but stays true to those times. On Chesil Beach tells a universal and moving love story that will surely make some people cry in the dark.
On Chesil Beach
dir. Dominic Cooke
United Kingdom 2017
A Lionsgate release premiered in cinemas across the UK and Ireland on the May 18th.