On Chesil Beach
Starring Billy Howle, Saoirse Ronan, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West
Saoirse Ronan received her first Oscar nomination for “Atonement,” written by Ian McEwan. Once again, she takes on a role he created, writing his own screen adaptation for the first time. Director Dominic Cooke, unfortunately, doesn’t work the same wonders with McEwan’s script that Joe Wright did with “Atonement.” The provocative nature of the subject matter creates problems for the director with pacing, editing, and especially tone. Cooke can’t seem to conjure up the emotion needed for “On Chesil Beach” to work. The most disappointing part is the subject matter could have benefited and educated audiences. The performances from Ronan and especially Howle keep the audiences invested, but even they can’t save this narrative from drowning.
It’s 1962, Edward Mayhew (Howle) and Florence Ponting (Ronan) have just been married and are spending their honeymoon on the quiet Chesil Beach and nearby lodge. Florence comes from a life of wealth and privilege, Edward from a distressed family coping with life’s unkindnesses. Both extremely naïve about relationships and both are virgins, a rarity even in those days. “Women are like doorways and men can enter them,” read Florence in a sex manual prior to her wedding night. Edward and Florence have never gone any further together than kissing, and neither of them have friends or family members to seek for advice. Their first attempt at sex goes horribly wrong, so wrong that after less than six hours of marriage, the couple begins to question their vows and future together.
The provocative nature of the subject matter creates problems for the director with pacing, editing, and especially tone.
“On Chesil Beach” has themes which might seem alien to modern audiences. It’s hard to imagine today a time where young adults wouldn’t understand how lovemaking works. McEwan creates such specific circumstances for both characters that put them in this precarious situation, it’s a little difficult to believe that neither would have had a place to turn for guidance. What’s even worse for the viewer, the lovemaking problem these two characters face unfortunately turns comical when it shouldn’t. This is where director Cooke gets the tone all wrong. From where we begin to where the film ends, there was no room for viewers to find laughter at the expense of this poor couple. Also, the musical accompaniment is in poor taste during a handful of scenes, again undercutting what would could have been emotional moments.
“On Chesil Beach” certainly defines what a bad honeymoon is, perhaps the worst I’ve ever seen on screen. At one point it seemed as if McEwan might have solved the mystery of why Kenny Chesney and Renee Zellweger listed “fraud” on their petition to nullify their marriage. The last thirty minutes of the film tries to reach an emotional height that it doesn’t deserve. The aging makeup also doesn’t do the actors trying to play 50 years into the future any favors. “On Chesil Beach” also suffers from having too many eccentric characters in this small little story. Howe’s (Dunkirk) character shines the brightest in the film, as he conveys the most understandable devastation through longing and hidden tears.
The real tragedy of “On Chesil Beach” is that this film doesn’t work as well as it could.