Edition 29 May 2018, by James Luxford
For those who follow the awards scene, a prestige drama being released in the spring or summer isn’t a good thing. With a top cast, gorgeous visuals, and recognisable source material in the form of Ian McEwan’s novel, On Chesil Beach would normally be a shoo-in for Oscar season (around October to February). On further viewing, however, it’s clear to see why it perhaps wasn’t vying for golden statuettes. Set in 1962, On Chesil Beach follows new married couple Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), two people who have overcome class and family issues to be together. While on their honeymoon, however, it is revealed Florence has a fear of sex, the idea of which she finds repulsive. Flashing back to the beginnings of their relationship, we learn more about both people, and how the strength of their love came to be put in such jeopardy.
As with the source material, this film explores an interesting question. Our protagonists clearly love each other dearly, but Florence’s fear of physical intimacy is a block to their happiness. However, despite a novel premise, the film never quite delves beyond broad emotions. As pretty as the cinematography is, and as compelling the performances, there is a level missing that prevents this from being devastating in the manner of other McEwan adaptations like Atonement. In trying to stay faithful to the letter of the novel (McEwan adapts his own book into this film’s screenplay), we lose some of its soul. What keeps you in your seat is the lead actors, who are simply marvellous in every scene they are in. Oscar nominee Ronan has never put in a bad performance, and her interpretation of Florence is not a two dimensional shrinking violet, but a complex woman troubled by an unknown past trauma that threatens to destroy her future. Equally, Dunkirk star Howle is a torrent of emotion, whose own insecurities bubble to the fore in some wonderfully acted scenes. Any story romance needs you to believe that these characters love each other, and the performances achieve that goal beautifully.
Just like the romance it portrays, On Chesil Beach is full of promise that is hampered by small but crucial failings. Had the characters’ journeys gone to grittier places, this would have been something special. As it is, it’s a well-acted, pretty, but flawed drama.