I must start by stating how utterly disappointed I am with "On Chesil Beach". Though I have not read Ian McEwan's best-selling novel, the fact that he, himself, adapted the screenplay held promise that the film would match the acclaim received by his literary effort. Alas, this is not so ---
The summer of 1962 provides the backdrop for "On Chesil Beach". It's still a year from the beginning of Beatlemania and eventually the Swinging Sixties and the birth of the sexual revolution. So the premise of "On Chesil Beach" addresses the staid sexual mores of the era when two young adults, Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), from very different backgrounds, fall in love.
Florence comes from money with an uptight mother, Violet Ponting (Emily Watson), who falls way short on the affectionate side of motherhood, and an incredibly overbearing father, Geoffrey Ponting (Samuel West), who may or may not be guilty of an incestuous past. While Edwards' family is much more loving, his father, Lionel Mayhew (Adrian Scarborough), is merely the head of a primary school, and his mother, Marjorie Mayhew (Anne-Marie Duff), an accomplished artist, has suffered brain damage from a horrible accident. So the two households are as opposite as Florence and Edward.
"On Chesil Beach" focuses on Florence and Edward's wedding night at a particularly stuffy hotel near Chesil Beach, most likely chosen and paid for by Geoffrey. After a long walk, the two settle into their room and try to shake off their wedding night jitters. Just as they are beginning to get comfortable with one another, they are interrupted by an unexpected dinner, also probably ordered by Florence's father.
Now that their rhythm has been broken, and facing a ridiculously formal dinner in their room, complete with two snarky waiters, Florence and Edward have a difficult time resuming their attempt at first-time lovemaking. And when Edward ruins the moment, Florence flees the room in shame and disgust. By the time Edward reaches her two miles down the beach, Florence has made a decision which will change both their lives forever.
"On Chesil Beach" falls into the genre I typically relish. Unfortunately, it fails to deliver --- in several areas. Most important in a story such as this is the chemistry between the two lead actors. And while I admire both, especially Ronan, they just do not exude the right amount of energy and sexual tension. We just saw Ronan and Howle together in "The Seagull", where they played potential lovers, and then Ronan's character spurns Howle's for another. I didn't buy their attraction in that film, nor do I here. And the whole "being in love" thing is paramount to the success of "On Chesil Beach".
Also, the entire time I was viewing this film, I felt as if I was watching a play instead. Many times Ronan delivers her lines as if she's on stage. And that is due to the director Dominic Cooke, "one of Britain's most acclaimed stage directors". "On Chesil Beach" is his debut as a feature film director, and I believe it's vastly obvious.
His vision rarely expands beyond "the stage" and even though award-winning director of photography Sean Bobbitt ("12 Years A Slave", "Shame") shot "On Chesil Beach" --- and does a magnificent job --- Cooke's direction hamstrings the larger moments, particularly when Florence walks away from Edward on the beach. Though shown several times in flashbacks, not once, for me, does it have the impact one would expect from such a dramatic scene.
Flashbacks are a main component of storytelling in "On Chesil Beach". Whether McEwan utilized this practice in his novel, I do not know. At times, I found this ploy annoying, especially regarding a few scenes which show a much younger Florence seemingly alone on a schooner with her father, who is constantly berating her lack of coordination in securing a rope.
And then there are several brief glimpses of the two at night alone on the boat --- implying that something untoward may have happened between father and daughter. But it's merely a tease --- a horrific tease --- and terribly unsettling nonetheless. Why this aspect of their relationship isn't further revealed is a mystery, and it only adds to my frustration with "On Chesil Beach". If something unthinkable had occurred, it obviously would account for Florence's frigid behavior.
"On Chesil Beach" is a gorgeous-looking movie with an Oscar-worthy soundtrack by Dan Jones ("Lady Macbeth" --- a 2017 favorite of mine). These attributes alone cannot catapult it into the category of exceptional period pieces, where it should be. I am sorry to state that "On Chesil Beach" fails to make us care about the repressive mores of the early 1960's --- and it's a waste of Ronan's talents.
Opinion: Mild Wait for DVD
Sexual dysfunction between spouses is nothing new and certainly not as a subject in cinema. Intuitively one would think it's a problem that can be overcome with proper therapy, but evidently not in 1962 England, which is the setting for Saoirse Ronan's latest film, "On Chesil Beach".
Florence Ponting (Ronan) is a young woman engaged to Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle). They appear to be very much in love, totally reveling in each other's company. As befits the social mores of the time, the couple has not yet engaged in sex, waiting for their wedding night to consummate the marriage. Florence has one passion, though, that transcends pretty much everything else in her life --- the violin.
The big night arrives, at last --- because not much happens in the film's first half. Florence preps for her wedding night by reading a sex manual, much to the delight and curiosity of her younger sister, Ruth (Bebe Cave). Meanwhile, Edward lies about having had multiple sex partners, and then, the night is a miserable failure. Florence runs from their hotel room, Edward eventually follows her to the beach, and "On Chesil Beach" picks up some much-needed steam.
Based on Ian McEwan's best selling novella/short novel (in this case under 40,000 words), there is no direct explanation for Florence and Edward's inability to make love. She has rather overbearing parents, a conservative mother (Emily Watson) who doesn't believe Edward is good enough for her daughter, and an unhinged father (Samuel West). Edward's mother suffered a debilitating brain injury, resulting in very erratic behavior. Perhaps a more in-depth look at each of the lead character's family dynamics would have yielded a more satisfactory outcome for the viewer.
It's too bad that the buildup to the film's denouement does not adequately prepare the audience for what should have been an emotional turn of events. "On Chesil Beach" rapidly moves from 1962 to 1975, and then to 2007. Edward and Florence have moved on from their shattered marriage, but to reveal anything further would spoil it for some moviegoers.
Director Dominic Cooke is an award-winning figure in British theatre, but "On Chesil Beach" is his first attempt at a feature length film. Considering everything that can be included in a two-hour movie, the totally uneventful first half severely hampers the story, and that shortcoming must lie with the director.
The performances from Ronan and Howle are first rate, especially hers. She can currently be seen in "The Seagull", which also features Howle as the son of Annette Bening, so "On Chesil Beach" is a reunion for the two actors. I will admit that the movie's final scenes are dramatic, somewhat fascinating, and even memorable. However, I'm not at all convinced that the payoff is worth the wait.
Opinion: Wait for DVD