Dominic Cooke's sumptuous adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel tells the tale of a marriage doomed from the start, using luscious photography and brilliant performances from Saiorse Ronan and Billy Howle.
Are emotional and physical intimacy both required for a romantic relationship? This question is the crux of the film On Chesil Beach. Adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel of the same name and directed by Dominic Cooke, On Chesil Beach is a gem of a film that deals with the uncrossable barrier of self that separates people in a relationship.
The story is bare-bones – in 1962, newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan), an upper-class violist, and Edward (Billy Howle), a working class aspiring historian, arrive at a hotel in Chesil Beach to spend their first night of nuptial bliss. However, Florence’s aversion to sex, and Edward’s unwillingness to understand her, leads to a breakdown of the marriage.
The summary isn’t the entirety of the plot, of course. The young couple’s memories flow into the present like a leitmotif in a film score. These memories detail the couple’s meeting and courtship, as well as the families’ reaction to the relationship. The memories circle around the marital issue, intertwining the past and present until they strike white hot upon the moment of failed consummation, giving the briefest hint of the true heart of the problem before retreating from it to deal with the fallout.
The synopsis makes On Chesil Beach seem heavy, but while it certainly has its drama, the first half of the film is overflowing with the quick wit and comedy of manners endemic to British comedy. The most notable of the comic scenes is near the beginning, where Edward and Florence are served dinner by an awkward pair of bellboys (played by Philip Labey and Oliver Johnstone). The humor helps endear us to the couple, helping the audience empathize with them even as their worst traits come to light.
Ronan and Howle expertly tease out their characters’ flaws, offering expert performances that anchor the film. Florence is unable to admit her fears to herself, much less Edward. As such, she oscillates between joy at the marriage, nervousness at the impending wedding night, irritation towards Edward’s sexual desire, and self-loathing. At first Ronan’s performance seems stilted, but as the movie goes on, it becomes clear that her affected attitude a defense mechanism towards Florence’s insecurities that only disappear when she plays the viola. Howle’s performance as Edward isn’t unsure at all. He plays Edward as a young man who knows what a man’s role in 1960’s England is, and as such there is an intense anger underlying even his tender moments. It’s not evident at first, but when it pushes forth, you realize it was always there- looking for a reason to show itself.
A major theme in Chesil Beach is the contrast between the ease the couple has with each other in their courtship and their awkwardness as a couple, Cooke’s mise-en-scene perfectly capturing this disparity. In the hotel room, the scenes are shot with a Steadicam in still medium and close ups; in flashbacks, Cooke sneaks in some handheld camerawork. In addition to the camerawork, the colors of the scenes contrast wildly as well. The flashbacks are filled with warm golden light and lush greens, while the hotel is full of grays and muted colors that extend even to the eponymous beach. This leads to the honeymoon scenes feeling claustrophobic and almost staid, while the unhappy memories are colored with almost an idyllic sense of joy.
Perhaps even more important to the feel of the film is the sound design. As with the cinematography, the sound design varies between flashback and the present. In the hotel room, there is no music outside of the diegesis and any noises outside the room are muted. This leaves a room full of silence, punctuated only by sounds coming from the characters. You can’t help but notice the clink of the silverware, the crinkle of clothing, the squeak in the bed- everything about the sound leads back to the couple and their discomfort. In contrast, the couple’s memories are filled with warm classical music, both diegetic and nondiegetic, and the sound mix is more balanced, making the audience feel more comfortable, and extending that comfort onto Edward and Florence.
Unfortunately, for all the care that Cooke and McEwan take to build up to the failed sex act, and the couple’s confrontation over it, the film’s final minutes leave a bit to be desired. It’s not a bad ending by any means, but it just feels somewhat rushed.
On Chesil Beach elevates a simple concept with impeccable drama, drawing in the audience with Cooke’s sumptuous visuals, sound design, and performances. While the ending isn’t as strong as the scenes leading up to it, On Chesil Beach haunts its audience as much as their wedding night haunts our leads.
On Chesil Beach opens in Chicago theaters on Friday, May 25th.