Monday, August 13, 2018

Movie Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach *** / *****
Directed by: Dominic Cooke.
Written by: Ian McEwan based on the novel.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Florence Ponting), Billy Howle (Edward Mayhew), Emily Watson (Violet Ponting), Anne-Marie Duff (Marjorie Mayhew), Samuel West (Geoffrey Ponting), Adrian Scarborough (Lionel Mayhew), Bebe Cave (Ruth Ponting).
Not all good books are destined to become good movies. Books can do things that film never could, and films can do things books never could. Ian McEwan’s slender novella On Chesil Beach is probably a book that should not have been adapted – as internal a work of fiction as it is, it’s hard to dramatize it and have the same effect it has on the page. The fact that Dominic Cooke’s film version works as well as it does is a testament to everyone involved in making the film – McEwan himself, who wrote the screenplay – but that doesn’t stop the movie from being a pale comparison to the source material.
It’s the early 1960s, and the sexual revolution hasn’t quite happened yet – or at least it hasn’t reached the conservative young people at the heart of the novel. Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) has just graduated college, with a music degree, and wants to make great music with her string quintet. She meets, and falls in love with Edward Mayhew (Billy Howie), another recent graduate, and although his family isn’t in the same class as Florence’s, their romance grows and blossoms into a marriage proposal, and what we are told is a tasteful ceremony. We meet them after all that though, on their wedding night, in a posh hotel on the beach. It will be the day they first have sex – something they are looking forward to in opposite ways – he cannot wait; she dreads it completely. Things will not go well.
Ronan is one of the best actresses currently working, and she’s quite good here as a young woman who can both love her new husband, and not want him to touch her. Her backstory is revealed throughout the film – and while it’s never explicit, it certainly points in the direction of why she is the way she is. We also get Edward’s backstory to, of course, and his is more standard. Perhaps, as a man, I understand his point of view better, so I found her much more fascinating.
It will all come to a head of course, after things go poorly. Florence is more mature about the whole thing than Edward – even if they are both humiliated for different reasons. Neither can really articulate what they are feeling – what they want to say, and they say the wrong things.
The book is slim – only 166 pages – and is basically an internal study of the two people who are sexually repressed in different ways. They should, of course, be able to talk about it – but they were raised in a way where talking about it just isn’t done. It isn’t proper. Mistakes are made – and the reverberate throughout the rest of their lives.
The book is great – one of McEwan’s best really. It’s also not very well suited to be turned into a movie. On screen, it sort of sits there, as they haven’t quite figured out the trick someone like Scorsese figured out in The Age of Innocence – which is to make what isn’t said more dramatic than what is. It’s still an interesting movie to be sure – Ronan is quite good, it is handsomely shot, and while it’s probably too long, it’s not horribly overlong either. It is, in short, a most forgettable, but decent film. I struggle to figure out how this could have been done better given the source material – which makes it think it probably shouldn’t have been done at all.

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