On Chesil Beach has proven to be a difficult film to comprehend. That is not to say that its story is complicated or hard to follow – to the contrary, actually. It is a straightforward story about two virgin newlyweds who are struggle to navigate their wedding night, and who make decisions that will affect their lives forever. What I did find confusing were the directorial choices and the glaringly obvious disingenuousness that came from the screen.
Based on a novella of the same name and adapted into a screenplay by its author Ian McEwan, the film predominantly takes place in 1962, and tells its story through a series of periodic flashbacks that reconvene on Chesil Beach, where the overriding dilemma is unfolding. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle star as Florence and Edward, the awkward newlyweds who find themselves in a situation that neither of them is mentally prepared for. As their lives unravel we are taken back to moments of their courtship, and given insight into how it all came to be, which is where some of the film’s perplexities arise.
Without revealing too much of the story’s intricacies, I will divulge that Florence has some serious hang-ups when it comes to consummating their marriage. Edward calls her frigid and while he is confused about her reluctance, we, the audience, are led to believe that there are deep-seeded reasons motivating her. And yet, the answers are kept frustratingly out of reach. Perhaps I need to consider the possibility of intentional misdirection at play, or that maybe director Dominic Cooke is making a feminist statement about women having ownership of their bodies. Whatever the case, the intention is murky and the delivery is taxing.
I would love to say that the strength of the film is in its performances, but there lies my biggest grievance. The disingenuous elements I referred to earlier come directly from Ronan and Howle. They deliver their lines as if aware of the camera’s presence, and at times it feels as though they are performing in a high school play, with any actual moments of sincerity few and far between. To be clear, this is no fault of the cast and the blame has to be given to McEwan’s script and Cooke’s direction. It could be that McEwan is a novelist and not a screenwriter, and is perhaps too attached to his original text. He hasn’t adapted his own work since The Good Son in 1993, and the fact that adaptations of his books – Atonement (also staring Ronan) and Enduring Love – have been successfully driven by other people may suggest that he’s more suited to the back seat.
The film marks Cooke’s feature directorial debut, with him having only previously directed three episodes of BBC mini-series The Hollow Crown. The fact that he struggled to tell a relatively simple story is concerning, and the misdirection seemed startling to me. His camera intrudes on various scenes and the occasional moments when the actors appear to be stepping around it certainly fractures the narrative. His dismissal and reluctance to explore the underling themes that may, or may not be, informing Florence’s state-of-mind fuel frustration, and the film feels deprived of dramatic potential, especially if it was an intentional decision to leave the story ambiguous.
All other performances are serviceable, with Emily Watson being outrageously underutilised. Her five minutes of screen time are wasted, as are Adrian Scarborough’s. It’s such a tease for two seasoned thespians of their calibre to be serving up just a few moments of goodness. Anne-Marie Duff is also reliable as the brain-damaged mother of Edward, with hers being the standout performance as far as I’m concerned.
The final act of On Chesil Beach provides some compensation for the previous two, and with the story shifting to 1974 (and then 2017) the entire tone of the film changes. There’s an immediate re-connection with the story and its setting, and I felt as though I was watching a collaboration between Stephen Frears and Richard Linklater. This final act is nicely done indeed, and the sincerity that was missing from the previous portions of the film comes bounding on to the screen as if it finally caught up.
Ronan made this film in between her phenomenal Oscar nominated performances in Brooklyn and Ladybird, which reaffirms her remarkable talent and reminds us that the strength of performance often relies on the strength of direction. There are clearly no worries about her future, however I am very interested to see what Cooke takes away from the experience and applies to his upcoming Cold War thriller Ironbark. Fingers are crossed for him, because he stumbled out of the blocks with this one.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★☆☆☆
‘On Chesil Beach’ opened in the US on May 18 and will hit Australian cinemas on August 9.