Ten years after it was originally published and shortlisted for the Booker Prize, Dominic Cooke brings “On Chesil Beach” to the big screen in his feature film directorial debut. The film stars Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird, Brooklyn) and Billy Howle (Dunkirk) as two virgin newlyweds, Florence and Edward, in 1960’s England whose first night together turns sour.The film mirrors the structure that made the book so critically acclaimed, the focus being on the couple’s first night together but also flashing back through their courtship and eventually forward to show the long lasting repercussions of that night.
So often film adaptions of books are a disappointment but when the screenplay is written by the novelist there is room to hope that it will impress, unfortunately when translated to the big screen Ian McEwan’s writing just doesn’t work. The poetic style of much of the dialogue may work on page but is unrealistic when heard aloud and it was clear Ronan and Howle were struggling to make them seem natural. Ronan does a particularly brilliant job playing a character who is both poorly written and misunderstood even by McEwan.
Florence is a kind and wonderful character who struggles with understanding or wanting sex but what could have been a beautifully handled commentary on the relationship between women (particularly of the time) and their bodies is undercut by a scene used entirely for shock value and a desperate grab for a twist. The scene is over quickly and it is seemingly left to the audience to draw their own conclusions but it is clear what is implied. Howle and the rest of the cast all do an admirable job working around McEwan’s script to create interesting moments in the silent beats.
From the very beginning the film is beautiful and that is it’s saving grace. Dominic Cooke, Dan Jones (music), Sean Bobbitt (cinematography) and Nick Fenton (editing) have come together to create the most aesthetically pleasing period film I have seen in a long time. Both Florence and Edward love music though their tastes vastly differ, Florence being a classical violin player and Edward leaning more to the hip music of the time.
Dan Jones has utilised this brilliantly, reflecting the mood and power dynamics of the scenes by switching between these two music genres. The pivotal scene of the movie takes place on Chesil Beach which is a rugged, pebbly beach that becomes more than just a beautiful backdrop as the wind and the crunch of the pebbles adds to the tense, heartbreaking scene. I would love to see their work again, perhaps teamed with a better screenwriter.