The British attitude towards sex has long been a topic of books, films and – well, let’s be honest – almost any art form going. There have been countless depictions over the years of repressed stiff-upper-lipped English folk avoiding rudimentary carnal conversation as though their lives depended on it. This evasion of sexual candour is at the suppressed core of Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize nominated novella On Chesil Beach, which sees the author pick up his sixth screenwriting credit.
This story’s set in the summer of 1962, with hours old newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) settling into their seaside honeymoon hotel suite. Preparing to spend their first night together as man and wife, the nervous couple awkwardly consume watered down wine, a traditional meat and two veg plus a melon slice topped with the obligatory glacé cherry impaled on a cocktail stick. Throughout the textbook exchanges of conversational pleasantries over dinner, the impending act of physical intimacy hangs over the couple with strained palpability. Edward’s bunglingly butterfingered attempt to unzip Florence’s dress leads to an unexpected and somewhat angered outburst of pent up frustration. In turn the snowballing levels of unspoken tension surrounding the marital bed are framed by flashbacks to the couple’s happier days of courtship.
Things start out romantically enough for the pair, as they immediately clock one another after a chance encounter at a local CND meeting. The enamoured couple swiftly acclimatise to each other’s opposing home lives and career ambitions. Violin prodigy Florence is steered by her passion for classical music and is desperate to break free from the restraints of her snobbish class obsessed mother (an inspired matriarchal cameo by Emily Watson). By contrast, wannabe historian Edward comes from much humbler origins; the son of a gentle souled school teacher, he spends a great deal of time caring for his brain-damaged mother (a heart rendering turn by Anne-Marie Duff). Despite this initial collision of conflicting worlds, the besotted twosome quickly find a stride. Their blossoming romance is set against the lustrous backdrop of the 60’s British countryside, all of which is idyllically shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years A Slave).
Four-time Olivier Award winning theatre director Dominic Cooke swaps stage for screen in his directorial debut here. Despite the at times compatibly stagey nature of On Chesil Beach (the boxy and almost claustrophobic nature of the couple’s hotel room being a prime example), Cooke unfortunately too often relies upon the A-game cast to do much of the heavy lifting. With McEwan opting to adapt his own source material, he explained in last weekend’s Saturday Times that “I just couldn’t bear the idea of anyone else doing it because it’s so tender and intimate. I worried that if I let it go it might become either pornographic, or comic, or exploitative”. Whilst McEwan’s fears are understandably founded, his fervently personal connection leads to an over-reliant respect for the original text. A fresh pair of eyes could have avoided this biased interpretation whilst perhaps simultaneously finding something new.
Saoirse Ronan finally comes full circle with this performance after originally achieving her break out role in 2007’s Atonement (another McEwan novel) at just the tender age of 13. Since then the Irish-American native has catapulted her way through Hollywood, already scooping up three Oscar nominations in her remarkable early 11-year career. Ronan breathes life into Florence with exquisitely crafted micro-expressions, her piercing blue eyes hinting at pools of uncharted emotions behind the serene and composed exterior. Ever the master of accents, Ronan captures the articulative chirpy nature of the English middle class with subtle finesse, further cementing her status as one of the best working actresses under 30.
Billy Howle’s Edward is hardworking yet sporadically tempered young man, he feels physically entitled to Florence after their nuptials (an uncomfortable societal norm of the time) without stopping to ponder the reason for her hesitance. Howle’s use of furtive longing glances convey the lack of willingness to openly and emotionally communicate with his spouse. After his turn in last year’s A Sense Of An Ending (as a young Jim Broadbent) which held similar narrative stylings and character themes to On Chesil Beach, Howle is well on track to become a household name.
Though On Chesil Beach contains dramatically restrained flaws and an ending so agonisingly clichéd it will make your eyes roll to the back of your skull, it is a crushing depiction of the blinkered self-awareness of youth, and a couple who were tantalisingly close to the free love of the swinging sixties which just might have saved them.
On Chesil Beach is in UK cinemas now.