ON CHESIL BEACH
Director: Dominic Cooke
Screenwriter: Ian McEwan, based on his eponymous novel
Runtime: 110 mins.
Australian release date: 9 August 2018
Previewed at: Palace Central, Sydney, on 16 July 2018.
Beginning in Dorset and covering a 45 year period between 1962 and 2007, Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach is the film adaptation of the eponymous novella by Ian McEwan and, because the author also wrote the screenplay, we can assume it's a reasonably faithful rendition of the source material... or can we? It turns out that, as with many filmed literary works, some scenes have been added that do not appear in the original book. That being said, these changes are necessary because, of course, a film is not a book - it needs to show the viewer certain moments that the mind would conjure up for itself if read on the page. They give the viewer a little more visual grist for the mill, for much of this sad story takes place in the heart and minds of the protagonists, dealing as it does with sexual repression and unspoken thoughts and desires.
The stunning opening footage is accompanied by a beautiful score from British composer Dan Jones, and it's an important component of On Chesil Beach that features throughout the film. It's 1962 and a young couple, Florence Ponting (Saiorse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), are honeymooning in a flash hotel on the sands of Chesil Beach on the Dorset coast, dining in their room with the full silver service experience on offer, as honeymooning couples are wont to do. Their conversation is stilted and you’re immediately aware that they are nervous and we see this temerity carry through to their failed attempt at consummation. Flashbacks reveal that they met at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament meeting and, although it was ‘love at first sight’, they are polar opposites. For example, Florence is into classical music and studying the violin while Edward is besotted with rock ‘n' roll and the likes of Chuck Berry. They also come from opposite ends of the British class system - the Pontings are upper-middle class and the Mayhews working class - yet the pair are determined to be together. So far, so good. Surely love will conquer all. Cut back to Chesil Beach and Florence makes a proposal to Edward that he finds devastating and has far-reaching and life-changing consequences.
On Chesil Beach is a subtly textured film that packs quite a punch. It’s important to bear in mind when watching, in 1962 society was only just taking its first tentative baby steps out of the repressive post-war years; the age of the Pill and ‘free love’ were yet to emerge, and Florence and Edward are children of the ‘50s. Ronan and Howle work exceptionally well together and the other key performers, namely Florence’s parents, played by Emily Watson and Samuel West, and Edward’s, played by Anne-Marie Duff and Adrian Scarborough, add vital layers of background and depth to the situation. Questions are left lingering as you try to determine the truth of the matter and why the lovers behave as they do. Cooke and McEwan’s film shows how, in life, sometimes people arrive at decisions to make things right that often turn out to be completely wrong. In this instance you come away from the screening thinking, ‘What if…’