On Chesil Beach

by Toby Woollaston

ocbWedding night nuptials have never felt this awkward. Ian McEwan’s (Atonement) adaptation of his own Booker-nominated novella, On Chesil Beach, opens with a sweet young couple walking hand-in-hand along the titular beach. Their honeymoon suite awaits.  What could possibly go wrong?  Well, for starters it is immediately apparent that these two brits—a blushing English bride and a handsome but bumbling groom—have a physical intimacy as fragile as glass. 

Set in 1962, ironically at the dawn of the sexual revolution, On Chesil Beach pits good will against the brutal truth of sexual countenance. Slowly, through flashbacks, we learn about Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward’s (Billy Howle) romance that leads to their engagement which was born on the wings of a burgeoning friendship more than sexual attraction.  Now, in their honeymoon suite, there is something clearly amiss as the couple struggle to consummate their marriage.  Bereft of any physical warmth, their honeymoon quickly becomes stilted, self-conscious (almost comically so) and strained. The sexual subtext occupies the room like a rutting bull-elephant. And despite the clipped “no sex please, we’re English” demeanour the film addresses the topic head-on with the momentum of a freight train. When inevitable derailment eventuates, you wonder how it happened so quickly.

There are, of course, reasons behind their awkward courtship, one particularly pointed event, which McEwan has chosen to only hint at. For the most part, the film concentrates on the immediate break-down of their relationship.  The confidence of a novelist who has adapted his own book is in full effect here and feature director debutant Dominic Cooke has done a commendable job managing McEwan’s material, helped immensely by Ronan and Howle’s vivid performances.

Unfortunately, the film’s final throw, a desperately sad flash-forward, loses itself in inches of poor facial prosthetics. A shame to have the story tarnished by a technical distraction, because otherwise On Chesil Beach delivers solid performances, an intriguing story, and perhaps the most beautifully framed final shot I’ve seen in a while.

See my reviews for the NZ Herald here and for Witchdoctor here.

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