“On Chesil Beach” is a beautiful and engrossing piece of work. Adapted by Ian McEwan from his own novella, it is well written, perceptive and a really good story. It is sensitively directed by Dominic Cooke, former artistic director at the Royal Court theatre and director of television’s “The Hollow Crown”, making his feature film debut here. And it is very well acted.
The year is 1962, a time when the swinging sixties had not yet happened and the sexual repression, stuffy class system and inflexible rules of respectability that dominated the fifties still shaped our society.
Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) are just married. It is the first evening of their honeymoon and they are about to have dinner in the bridal suite of a prim seaside hotel, served by a pair of smirking waiters. They are both virgins and looming over them is the scary prospect of having sex together. When the moment finally arrives, it all goes disastrously wrong. Florence leaves the hotel in a panic, taking refuge on the beach of the title, where she and Edward have a painful confrontation, which will shape the rest of their lives.
The film’s present time is illuminated with flashbacks to the couple’s past and their relationships with their very different families, which have made them the young adults they now are. In Florence’s case it is a well off, middle class set up – her snobbish and overbearing mother (Emily Watson), who mocks her daughter’s “ban the bomb” beliefs, which are what first bring the young couple together, and her bullying, businessman father (Samuel West). Edward’s background is contrastingly more modest and also chaotic, living with his artistic but brain damaged mother (Anne-Marie Duff), who is constantly watched over by her always anxious teacher husband Lionel (Adrian Scarborough).
So although deeply in love, Florence and Edward are very different from each other. Their contrasting tastes in music play an important role in their story. Edward loves jazz while Florence is a violinist in a classical string quarter, which she hopes to make her career, though they find a musical meeting ground in the work of Chuck Berry, which she finds “merry and bouncy”.
The sense of period is perfect –in visual details such as the slice of melon with a glace cherry which is the first course of their honeymoon dinner, in the costumes and settings and in the impeccable acting of the entire cast. The core of the film, the scene on Chesil Beach itself, is riveting and beautifully filmed, ending with a wide shot of the couple with what looks like miles of space between them with the sea in the background.
The film ends with two flash forwards showing how that confrontation has shaped their lives. One to the seventies, when Florence and Edward are in their thirties and a second to 2007, where they are very convincingly shown in their sixties. This last scene, where the now elderly Edward finally fulfils a promise he made to Florence in their youth, may well break your heart.