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On Chesil Beach (2017) starring Saoirse Ronan

A fraught wedding night

This relationship drama, adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel, begins at a seaside hotel in England in 1962. Newlywed couple Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billie Howle) are having dinner in their room before preparing to consummate their relationship. However, things start to get awkward as Florence suggests that they go outside to spend some time on the beach. She clearly has some feelings of apprehension towards being intimate with her now-husband, a fact which is generating increasing friction between him.

The film alternates between focussing on their wedding night difficulties and flashing back to various past moments from their own lives and the course of their relationship. The pair met at a CND meeting at Oxford University and quickly fell in love despite their different standings in Britain’s social order of this period. Florence comes from the upper-middle-class Ponting family, whose breadwinner is her father, factory owner Geoffrey (Samuel West). Her mother, Violet (Emily Watson), is a staunch blue-wearing Tory. Edward, meanwhile, is the product of a rather more bohemian upbringing, courtesy of his eccentric artist mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) and headmaster father Lionel (Adrian Scarborough). While Florence plays in a string ensemble and assists a concert pianist, Edward’s cultural preferences lean towards pubs, fights and Chuck Berry.

However, while their relationship triumphs over class differences, there are some unspoken deeper issues surrounding the physical side of their coupling which ultimately come to a head.

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Another fine performance from an acclaimed young actress

On Chesil Beach clearly comes saddled with some weight of expectation attached as its 24-year-old leading actress, Saoirse Ronan, recently won a Golden Globe, along with Oscar and BAFTA nominations, for her performance in Lady Bird. Her work here is every bit as impressive as she vividly portrays the extreme awkwardness of a young woman who has a clear case of nerves surrounding bedroom matters. Billy Howle is her equal as a young man who, while neither unlikeable nor unsympathetic, has clear anger issues which prevent him from being able to handle his partner’s difficulties. Needless to say, their respective differences are a surefire recipe for heartrending tragedy.

However, the pivotal hotel room scenes leading up to this disastrous moment are laced with a subtly uncomfortable humour - be they the rather grim 1960s British hotel food fare (melon slice starters and roast beef with vegetables that clearly come from a tin) or Edward’s faltering attempts to unzip the back of Florence’s dress. Anyone who still remembers their first time will surely wince. The flashbacks are, by and large, similarly well-observed and impeccably shot in painterly fashion by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave). While the period details and supporting performances are impeccable, these scenes have a kind of warmly romantic glow about them which makes the blustery, autumnal visual language of the climactic sequence (taking place on the shoal of the titular Chesil Beach) all the more jolting. It’s during this latter moment that the film is at its strongest, as director Dominic Cooke frames both actors in shot in a manner which effectively reflects the dramatic tension and deterioration in their relationship. The sight of Saoirse Ronan’s ginger hair billowing in the sea breeze is a truly haunting image in this context.

Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howie in On Chesil Beach

However, while On Chesil Beach amounts to a powerful tale of doomed love, it’s not without its faults. Some flashbacks to Florence’s childhood which seem to provide some clues to the nature of her issues are so fleeting that they barely register. There are scenes involving specific behaviour on the part of both Edward’s mother and Violet’s father which aren’t really clarified by the narrative either. One is left with the feeling that some explanatory scenes related to their characters were excised in order to keep the runtime down. Worst of all, the last few moments have a rather hokey and false air to them, even going as far as employing some unconvincing old-age makeup and glycerin tears. The filmmakers undoubtedly, but rather misguidedly, felt that they needed to soften the devastating blow of the film’s main dramatic payoff.

Still, while these flaws mar the film slightly, they don’t ruin it. On Chesil Beach is a well-crafted and well-acted look at the delicate and complex issue of expectations surrounding the act of sex, particularly in an era when Britain was yet to shake off its postwar conservatism.

Runtime: 110 mins

Dir: Dominic Cooke

Script: Ian McEwan, from his own novel

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson, Samuel West

Rating: ☆☆☆1/2

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