How to adapt Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella, an intimate, claustrophobic work detailing a young couple’s awkward attempt to consummate their marriage in a small hotel on the Dorset seashore? Is it even possible to make a film from a setting so contained, from prose so forensic in its chronicling of every gesture and expression, where each tic, stutter, and silence is freighted with pinpoint psychology?
Well, employing McEwan himself to pen the screenplay isn’t a bad start. The author maintains much of the burning embarrassment and soul-sick sadness that brings such weight to his slender source work. Perhaps inevitably, he opens the story out, first providing flashbacks to the couple’s romance and to key events plucked from their pasts. He then moves the tale on from that fateful wedding night, offering a whistle-stop tour into old age. But such ‘padding’ takes its cues from the novella: a suffocating dinner, endured next to the waiting bed, allows readers to eavesdrop on conversation pertaining to their upbringings; a coda of just a few pages telescopes the lives to come.
Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle fully inhabit Florence and Edward, both university graduates with first-class degrees, though he is of humbler origins. They meet at a CND rally, but are a conservative pair (Chuck Berry plays on the wireless, contrasting the fact that their lives are anything, but rock and roll). It is 1962 and the free-love movement is still to come, so Florence and Edward enter their marriage as virgins, lowering themselves onto the satin sheets to fumble, clutch, and mush their mouths together like masticating cattle. It is cinema’s most excruciating sex scene since Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams booked into the tacky love motel in Blue Valentine, and its seismic impact will reverberate through the entirety of their lives to come.
The first film by stage director Dominic Cooke, On Chesil Beach is trapped in theatricality, and the flashbacks, far from letting in air, only add to the artificiality and fustiness. But that’s perhaps as it should be. The precise parcelling of the story only aids those cramped confines in robbing the viewers of oxygen – before long we, like the characters, are dabbing at our brows and swallowing with an audible click. We’re so up close and personal that it’s hard not to share Florence’s clammy fear and disgust, or feel the heat of Edward’s hot-blooded anger as his embarrassment mingles with his sense of male entitlement. It’s this last that makes On Chesil Beach such insightful viewing in our current #MeToo era, for all that it captures a specific time and place.
- Release date: May 18, 2018
- Certificate: 15 (UK)
- Running time: 110 mins