On Chesil Beach may be a boy-meets-girl story but this one doesn’t play as you would typically expect. The film is an adaption of an Ian McEwan novella and is a heart-wrenching, domestic drama. Set in 1962 in the period between the lifting of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and the release of The Beatles first album; this is a sad and nuanced character study that is very much a product of the time that it’s set in.
This film marks the directorial feature debut of Dominic Cooke who has worked extensively in the British theatre and is beautifully shot. It stars Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird) and Billy Howle (Dunkirk) who also play lovers in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. The former is also making a return to one of McEwan’s adaptations, having previously played Briony Tallis in Atonement.
The young couple (Florence and Edward) are on their ill-fated honeymoon in Dorset. What should be a joyous occasion is a night wracked with awkwardness and tension. The pair are virgins and over the course of the evening they will have supreme difficulty consummating their marriage. This is in part due to the repressed time period they live in (in one flashback scene Florence learns about the deed from a clinical medial manual) as well as their own personal circumstances.
The story unfolds rather slowly and alternates between their wedding night in 1962 and the time preceding it when they were happily courting. The pair were a little mismatched from the beginning. Edward was a scholarly country boy who has to help care for his mentally-ill, artist mother (Anne-Marie Duff). Florence meanwhile, is from a wealthy family (her mother is played by Emily Watson) who live in the city. Florence is also an accomplished musician who plays in a string quartet in Oxford, which she helped found. Despite these differences, the pair fall in love and get married.
Ronan does an excellent job playing the prudish and uptight Florence. She has a lot to convey in this role and she does so with great aplomb. Howle similarly, is good as Edward, her husband. He is a man who becomes very aggressive and is too proud to smooth over the events of the evening. The couple are doomed and the story shows how life-altering a single, solitary event can be. The story also features a few scenes set in the future. When taken together, this is a textured tapestry of different emotions.
On Chesil Beach is a tragic and human story. This period drama hits some intriguing beats with respect to a young couple’s relationship where their innocence, naivety and lack of communication prove to be too big a chasm between them. This quiet, intimate and sympathetic tale is a deep observation on misunderstandings and is an introspective look at the damaging effects of internalised conflict.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
On Chesil Beach is in cinemas this Thursday.