On Chesil Beach (2017)

295 On Chesil Beach

Some argue it is improper to review a film adaptation without first reading the book; of course, others disagree. Without knowing the novel, this review of On Chesil Beach (2018) is based solely on its filmic merits without regard or reference to Ian McEwan’s 2007 acclaimed novella. And that’s how it should be.

Set in 1960s England, the plotline is based on the honeymoon night of virgins Florence (Saorise Ronan) and Edward (Billie Howie) who attempt unsuccessfully to consummate their marriage. They are opposite personalities who come from different class backgrounds, and these are explored through several flashbacks that punctuate their almost farcical sexual ineptitude. When they give up in tears and frustration, Florence runs onto Chesil Beach with Edward in pursuit to exchange words that effectively end the marriage.

Without a strong forward narrative or well-developed characters that attract empathy, this film struggles to engage emotionally. Neither Florence nor Edward are portraits of subtlety or authenticity. Edward attempts his marital duty with an oafish absence of romantic sensitivity, and Florence is a model of repressed victimhood. We learn little from the flashbacks that are intended to explain their almost comical clumsiness and sexual inhibition. When Florence suggests that Edward take a lover and their future together be platonic, the words appears suddenly without social or psychological context and are delivered as if they were a throwaway line.  As the story will be known by many, it reveals little to say their separate lives carried the lingering regrets about how they mis-handled their disastrous wedding night. Fate then brings them together briefly, but only long enough to share some melodramatic tears.

The story appears to have high potential for translation to the medium of film. However, Ronan is too worldly-wise to convincingly fill the role of an awkward virgin, while Howie overplays his version of the stumbling seducer. The over-reliance on flashbacks create too many fracture lines in the story and brush too lightly over the family and class factors that might have influenced the couple. The bedroom scenes vacillate between comedy and farce, while the dialogue on the beach plays more like a soap opera between two unrelated people rather than a newly married husband and wife. Stunning photography and a well selected musical score cannot alone carry the film.

Of all its other limitations, the one issue that most affects the film’s overall impact is continuity editing. Flashbacks are effective in filling out a story if they serve the forward narrative. Here they disrupt the all-too-slow unfolding of an atypical wedding night. Nor do they adequately illuminate how two mature young adults could be so hopelessly ill-prepared for married life. As a film, On Chesil Beach disappoints expectations and loses itself somewhere between the coming-of-age, comedy of manners, and period drama genres. Without falling into any of these, the film lacks soul.


Director: Dominic Cooke

Stars:  Saorise Ronan, Billie Howie