Dominic Cooke/ UK/ 2017/ 110 mins
@Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fr 25 May 2018
Ian McEwan has made a career of writing about seemingly small moments that turn out to be pivotal. From a chance reading of an explicit letter in Atonement to a fateful meeting during a ballooning accident in Enduring Love, he’s acutely interested in the psychological impact that these instances have on his protagonists. These character studies have been adapted for the screen with mixed results, and On Chesil Beach sadly jettisons the taut, agonised regret of McEwan’s novella for earnest melodrama, clumsy symbolism, and an unforgivably contrived conclusion.
In 1962, young lovers Florence and Edward (Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle) have just got married, and they spend an excruciating evening buckled by the expectation of consummation and crushed by their inexperience, leading to a quietly cataclysmic moment that changes the course of their lives. This event is interspersed with flashbacks examining their courtship and their relationship with their families.
McEwan, adapting himself, has sought to expand on his slim volume but hasn’t managed to translate the cloying sense of loss that seeps between every line of prose into a satisfying screenplay. First-time director Cooke brings plenty of stage experience; but between them, the result is a work crippled by a rigidity that’s only alleviated by a scene that is not just a tacked-on addition; but one which adds a sour note of mawkish closure to a story that was effective and haunting because of this purgatorial lack.
Both of the leads acquit themselves well, even if they never get to shake the straitjackets imposed on them. Howle has something of the young Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning about him, and Ronan, partly down to her age, is now a veteran at portraying young women looking to find their place in the world. However, from Atonement, through Hanna, Brooklyn, and Lady Bird, these have been vibrant, active protagonists. Florence’s passivity isn’t a natural fit for the livewire actress, and she seems more burdened by the role than anything she’s done previously. It’s only in her interactions with Edwards’s brain-damaged mother (Anne-Marie Duff), that she appears relaxed into the role.
There are moments of tender comedy as the couple shyly become closer, and the themes of love, family and, of course, class are addressed nicely, with the warmth of Edward’s family contrasted with the austerity of Florence’s. Any goodwill generated throughout is cursorily butchered by the awful ending however. Any film needs to have been pretty great for the addition of old age makeup not to be a rampaging bull in a cinematic china shop, and On Chesil Beach comes nowhere close. Instead it goes a long way to turning a competent, mediocre film into gooey travesty.