Nobody does “stiff upper lip” and awkward conversations as expertly as writer Ian McEwan. His deeply flawed and achingly complex protagonists not only make for an interesting study in repressed emotion, heartache and missed opportunities, but they also manage to install a feeling of visceral awkwardness in his readers. Adapted from McEwan’s book of the same name, and from a screenplay by the author himself, Dominic Cooke’s latest feature film On Chesil Beach brilliantly conveys all of those repressed feelings and more in this compelling yet flawed adaptation.
It’s the summer of 1962 and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) are newly married and about to spend their first honeymoon night together in a small hotel on Chesil Beach, Dorset. As they politely interact with one another before sitting down for a formal dinner, it soon transpires that all isn’t well in the young couple’s relationship. Tempers fray when an awkward attempt by Edwards to consummate his marriage with his new wife, is met with utter disgust and anger by the usually calm and collected Florence.
Structured around a series of flashbacks, the story takes us back to the early days of the young couple’s romance in which the seemingly old fashioned Florence is more than taken by Edward, a young man whom her parents appear to disapprove of. Falling instantly for the studious, yet decidedly odd Edward, Florence is also taken by his shambolic family and mentally disabled mother, played beautifully by Anne-Marie Duff. It soon transpires that there is a huge secret behind Florence’s reluctance on her wedding day, a secret which neither she is able to come to term with, nor is Edward prepared to know more about.
Ronan is as magnificent as ever, her ability to convey a certain feeling of unease all the while coming across as beautifully disarming is one of the things that makes her into such an incredibly versatile performer. While Howle puts in an impressive turn as the proud yet deeply fragile Edward. Both actors play beautifully off each other, their characters are as similar in their traditional outlook on life, as they are in their unwillingness to forgive and forget until it’s too late.
Cooke sadly misses a chance to get more out his brilliant cast by offering only a superficial retelling of the story instead of making it his own. Its fidelity to the source material sadly lets the film down instead of making it more authentic, which in turn leaves you wishing there was a meatier narrative to sink your teeth into. On the whole, On Chesil Beach presents a deeply moving story with intricate ramifications and a big secret at the heart of its storyline, but the film somehow fails to ignite the same feelings and emotions as the book does.