On Chesil Beach

May 25, 2018

in Movies

Film (2018)

Directed by Dominic Cooke
Screenplay by Ian McEwan
Based on the novel by Ian McEwan

Music by Dan Jones; Cinematography by Sean Bobbitt; Film Editing by Nick Fenton

With Saoirse Ronan (Florence Ponting), Billy Howle (Edward Mayhew), Emily Watson (Violet Ponting), Anne-Marie Duff (Marjorie Mayhew), Adrian Scarborough (Lionel Mayhew), Samuel West (Geoffrey Ponting), Bebe Cave (Ruth Ponting)

Billy Howle as Edward, Saoirse Ronan as Florence in 'On Chesil Beach'

Billy Howle as Edward
Saoirse Ronan as Florence
in “On Chesil Beach”
Image: Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

A beautifully done rendition of McEwan’s difficult narrative about a pair of newlyweds on their honeymoon.

Edward Mayhew (Billy Towle), from a working-class family with a brain damaged mother, falls in love with Florence Ponting (Saorise Ronan), a violinist from a higher class family with a mother Violet (Emily Watson) who’s simply a bitch, and they get married. They go to Chesil Beach for their honeymoon and face up to the demands of intimacy.

A lot moves slowly in this interesting but flawed narrative. The most interesting part has to do exactly with the glacial pace of much of it. The painstaking attention to details of the honeymoon setup and the blow by blow flashback of the romance are all done exquisitely. This represents not only beatuiful filmmaking in all respects but a genius for this kind of storytelling by novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan. Were the whole thing to be like this, it would, in its own strange and slow-moving way, be perfect.

Unfortunately, McEwan has the tendency to overdramatize his narratives in certain ways. It gives them a certain kind of jolt but also draws away from that painstaking attention to detail which is his stock in trade and which represents so much careful knitting of interactions between subtle elements of plot and character.

But, baboom! Here, as in other narratives, McEwan lowers the boom and it feels oddly out of place. What has built up over the course of all but the last part of the film as a kind of deliberate investigation of character, turns into a kind of melodramatic mess.

It would seem that the idea of the melodramatic turn is what might have inspired the narrative to begin with, but unfortunately, if that were the case, it just seems out of place. Everything preceding it is so finely wrought that the lowering of the boom seems wrong.

The two stars are truly wonderful together. Oddly, they appear concurrently in the far less fortunate current adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. They are far better here – passionate, penetrating, convincing. They have real chemistry between them, and it is that which makes the odd turn of the narrative seem particularly weird.

Direction, editing, music, are all done expertly. Transitions between flashbacks and the current scene at the beach are artfully wrought.

Oddly, I had the same kind of disappointment at the end of this film that I had at the end of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2014). Though entirely different films, they are, in their major buildups, excellently done in so many ways. When, in both cases, the narrative comes crashing down at the end, the effect on what precedes it is numbing. One simply wants to ask each of these excellent writers why he chose to screw up what were such convincing narratives with denouements that are just cheaply dramatic.

Overall: On Chesil Beach is in so many ways such a beautifully written, directed and acted film that one really must see it for those dominant qualities and try to bracket off what feels like an unfortunate narrative turn which, at the end, weakens it.

Saoirse Ronan as Florence, Billy Howle as Edward in 'On Chesil Beach'

Saoirse Ronan as Florence
Billy Howle as Edward
in “On Chesil Beach”
Image: Courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

– BADMan

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