Ten minutes into On Chesil Beach and I forgot I was watching a British film. Where were the colourful supporting cast, played by representatives of the British acting establishment? What happened to the earnest attempt to seem serious and meaningful, announcing ‘this is literature’? What I saw – and fell in love with – were two newly-weds, both bright, both promising, both eminently likeable negotiating a moment of intimacy without the slightest idea of what to expect. And then –
Adapted by Ian McEwan from his slender (166 page) 2007 novel, the film is set in 1962, at the time of emerging social mobility and political awakening. Young people found they had a voice and a cause – preserving the Earth from nuclear oblivion – worth canvassing for. Edward (Billy Howle) is a young man from a middle class background who worked for and got a First Class degree. Opportunities appear open to him in spite of the mental illness experienced by his mother (Anne-Marie Duff), a bright artist who received a bang on the head from a train door – a gasp making moment – and hasn’t been right since. Wandering around Oxford delirious with his news – Edward didn’t study there but lives in the area – he meets Florence (Saoirse Ronan), who is handing out leaflets for a local ‘Ban the Bomb’ protest. Florence has a First Class degree too, and musical ambitions – she fronts a string quartet. She is attracted by Edward’s good spirits and his lack of expectation. They spend time together – Edward has tea with Florence’s parents. Florence brings out the best in Edward’s mother, with whom she communicates through art. ‘Marry that girl,’ orders Edward’s father. But they cannot learn how to be married from a book.
McEwan and the director Dominic Cooke, who makes an auspicious debut here, eschew plot for telling incident. At one point, Florence’s father (Samuel West) invites Edward for a game of tennis for the purpose of roundly thrashing him and asserting his fragile masculinity. When Florence turns up at the end of the game, her father is enraged. How much did she see? How dare she turn up? For that moment, Florence was the brunt of her father’s shame. He was caught out in his facile game and – who knows – maybe Edward played poorly to let him win. This scene isn’t discussed further – it is shown as a flashback – but hangs in the air, placing us in a particular era when the privileged felt truly threatened by the emerging middle class.
This parade of shame is extended to Edward as well. In a flashback to his university years, we see him defend another young man from abuse, resorting to violence. Edward’s actions repel his friend, making him all too aware of his own masculine shortcomings. They are not reconciled.
These actions are contrasted with the start of the honeymoon at an English seaside hotel, where a meal is taken in their room with waiting staff, somewhat embarrassingly on hand. The embarrassment of being watched is acute – and we also know that the staff spilled the wine beforehand, replacing it with water. Expectation practically crushes the couple.
Does the film have anything to say to a modern young audience, more sexually knowledgeable than their grandparents? I think it does. It portrays English society not as opposites but as fragile layers placed on top of one another. It dramatises the possibilities of youth – Florence’s hopes for her quartet, Edward overflowing with erudition (‘therefore I love you’). Yet this unmakes the traditional romance, where Florence’s proposition in the light of awkward events is monumentally misunderstood.
For 90 minutes of the film’s running time, the drama lives and breathes. We are captivated by both Howle and Ronan – so effective together, they have been reteamed in the forthcoming screen adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, in an all-star cast headed by Annette Bening. Then the film decides to adopt the narrative structure of Atonement, leaping forward to the 1970s and beyond. The coda is utterly pointless. Just as we didn’t need to go into the Mothership in the Special Edition of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we certainly didn’t need this. The rest of the film simply isn’t as on the nose.
Yet when the writing, acting and direction are as good as they are here, I can forgive the coda. Ronan continues to prove herself to be frighteningly, nay explosively talented. She’s already excelled in my favourite release of the year so far, Lady Bird. She remakes herself in every role. If she never appears in a superhero movie – the graveyard of acting talent – I’ll be delirious. For now, On Chesil Beach is another showcase of her perfectionism – a Saoirse thing.