On Chesil Beach review: Ian McEwan adapts his own book; a period piece about two newlyweds attempting to consummate their marriage in a hotel on the south coast of Dorset.

On Chesil Beach review by Paul Heath.

On Chesil Beach review
On Chesil Beach review

The second of Ian McEwan’s books to hit the big-screen in as many months on the global film festival stage (following The Children Act at TIFF), On Chesil Beach is his self-penned adaptation of the Booker prize shortlisted novel from 2007.

Set in 1962, the film opens to Edward and Florence Ponting, two newlyweds from different backgrounds – Edward (Billy Howle) is a graduate student of history, while Florence (Saoirse Ronan) is from a more affluent upbringing, and is a violinist in a musical string quartet. They have come to Chesil Beach on the south coast of England for their honeymoon, staying in a nearby hotel where we see them enjoying a silver-service meal in their room – complete with two half-wit waiters, who bungle every move before oddly watching over them as they eat. The two make chit-chat over their meal, but we can see that there is something of an elephant in the room as the evening progresses.

They sit and reflect on their upbringing, their story told in flashback, looking to Edward’s family, who have been struck by tragedy – his mother, played by Anne-Marie Duff, being involved in a car-crash, which has permanently affected her mental health – and to Florence’s very different childhood, a more comfortable journey in terms of wealth, though one equally as troubled, hints of abuse very much at the forefront of the recollections of her earlier years growing up.

The film follows the first evening of their marriage and their attempts to consummate their young nuptial, memories of the past coming back to haunt them, particularly Florence, all set against the beautiful backdrop of coastal Dorset.

On Chesil Beach review
On Chesil Beach review

McEwan’s source novel made waves upon its initial release 10 years ago, the book coming in at a paltry 160-odd pages in length, controversial for its short-listing for the prestigious Booker. Still, the book was a triumph; a modern classic screaming for a film version. So, here it is, brought to the screen by celebrated stage director Dominic Cooke.

Cooke’s debut is largely respectable and worthy of the sourcebook. The filmmaker has assembled a cast more than capable of pulling off the drama need for such material. A stand-out is the relative newcomer Billy Howle, who, to a large extent, carries most of the story. The sexually forward Edward is brought to life tremendously by the young actor, who so far has only been seen in a minor role in the TV mini-series Glue and The Witness for the Prosecution. He was cast in this summer’s Dunkirk, but again in a very small part, but it is here where he should see his career break-out – a sincerely honest, emotional turn as the lead male. Ronan too is perfectly cast as Florence, a role she has held onto playing since her turn in McEwan’s previous big-screen adaptation Atonement all those years ago. She nails the role and brings gravitas, and although Florence is very young and innocent, the actress also brings maturity to her performance. She’s wonderful.

On Chesil Beach review
On Chesil Beach review

The main issue that I had with the film is one’s lack of emotional involvement. While all the elements are there, including some wonderful cinematography, the investment wasn’t great enough to gain any response, and despite Cooke’s magnificent character-direction, and McEwan’s structure for the screenplay, I found it massively drawn-out, and perhaps a touch overlong. The latter sequences seemed too much of a bolt-on, despite their inclusion in the original material, and the aging techniques very distracting.

That said, there’s a lot to get out of the film, and it is a worthy, faithful adaptation, but it may just be more suited to a different medium.

On Chesil Beach review by Paul Heath, October 2017.

On Chesil Beach will be released in early 2018.

On Chesil Beach