Ian McEwan adapts his own melancholy masterpiece to the screen. In the repressed England of the early 1960s, a newly married young couple nervously anticipate their first night together. As they awkwardly try to be intimate with each other they reminisce about their courtship and their lives. As they attempt to get closer they find themselves driven apart until a devastating ultimatum threatens to change their lives forever.
Dominic Cooke directs his first feature film, having previously done masterful work on the BBC’s Hollow Crown series. What he achieves here is a palpable sense of claustrophobia. The character’s anxieties about sex are powerfully rendered through quick cuts and uncomfortable blocking. The prolonged sex scene at the heart of the film plays out like a tense chase sequence.
The two leads are very compelling. Saoirse Ronan is able to once again completely transform into her role and offers an earnest performance as a young woman who is at once powerful and terrified. Her performance feels in some way iconic, with her steely stare and bright blue dress set against the grey skies of Britain’s coast. Ronan proves herself to be one of the most robust actors currently working.
Similarly Billy Howle provides a nuanced performance as the somewhat working class dreamer who finds himself cut off from everyone he loves. He alternately achieves an Eddie Redmayne style mawkishness and a frightening anger very ably.
The drama of the film comes from their inability to communicate. They talk over each other and are both completely wrapped up in their own insecurities. They cannot perceive each other’s fears, and instead become mirrors for the other’s anxieties. It’s a very well observed and authentic dysfunctional relationship.
Dialogue is, unfortunately, often a little contrived and sometimes too on the nose. Whilst two great monologues offer our leads the chance to shine, conversational dialogue feels trite. There is also little depth to side characters with the noticeable exception of Ann-Marie Duff as Edward’s mother who has experienced a brain injury and so has to play a women who is only an echo of her former brilliant self. She is tragic but beautiful in her wistful sadness. Adrian Scarborough as Edward’s father also has one of the more poignant moments of the film as he sits with his son to discuss what happened on his wedding night.
McEwan has changed the ending to his story, making it less ambiguous and perhaps more overtly tragic. I feel the change undoes some of the poignancy of the original ending, and to audiences unfamiliar with the text will reduce one character’s heartfelt beliefs to merely an obstacle in another’s character’s life journey. It reduces a character to a plot point.
On Chesil Beach is a remarkably well accomplished character study that is rich with emotion. Its faults are not enough to derail the experience of a young couple torn apart by societal expectations and insecurity.
4 / 5