‘On Chesil Beach’ refreshingly strays from typical romance themes
Directed by: Dominic Cooke
Written by: Ian McEwan (novel and screenplay)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Samuel West, Lionel Mayhew, and Anne-Marie Duff
“On Chesil Beach” – “Actually, I’m a little bit scared.” – Florence (Saoirse Ronan)
“I think I am too.” – Edward (Billy Howle)
Chesil Beach, a natural barrier made of pebbles, stretches for 18 miles in Dorset along the English Channel. This thin landmass of small rocks looks delicate from the air, but Chesil Beach is not an environmental wonder that just materialized overnight. It has a solid foundation with eons of history.
Edward and Florence (or Flo), in their very early 20’s, get married and then honeymoon at an inn next to this picturesque locale. Although marriage is supposedly built on an already-existing solid foundation, the two discover that their relationship is much more delicate.
Director Dominic Cooke and writer Ian McEwan – who adapted his 2007 book “On Chesil Beach” for the screen – carefully address the themes of finding the right partner, establishing open lines of communication and clearly understanding the baggage that each person brings to a marriage before the actual ceremony. Although this emotional checklist appears logical and straightforward, formal training manuals for picking a spouse and establishing a solid foundation are not uniformly handed out to aspiring young couples.
Additionally, Cooke and McEwan introduce a fairly unique issue in contemporary cinema that will not be named in this review. It is a sensitive, tricky subject, but it’s one that the characters can properly address through honest and respectful communication, and the filmmakers handle the topic with maturity and smart camerawork.
“On Chesil Beach” is not an everyday, flowery romance story, and those expecting Ronan’s Flo to enjoy a breezy relationship - like her character Ellis in “Brooklyn” (2015) - will be disappointed. It does recount the leads’ initial meeting and courtship during the early 1960’s, but theirs is not a romance where they grasp heated moments in a doorway, movie theatre or grassy field. Their dating period is filled with more wholesome moments of quality time spent in each other’s worlds. Worlds slightly divided by class.
Howle and Ronan play the couple as polite, considerate and caring, and Flo wins over Edward and his family with her grace and kindness. These actors make it very easy to like their characters, while we wish that their marriage will last 60 years…on the low-end. Of course, no marriage bathes in perfection, and the narrative establishes that Edward’s mother and Flo’s father are imperfect role models. Whether we all like it or not, our parents unwittingly impact and program our choices as adults, and Edward and Flo are not exempt from this phenomenon that has existed as long as humans have roamed the planet.
Cooke does a nice job of capturing his on-screen planet, the 60’s. With costumes, attitudes, atmosphere, and selected bright color palates, he properly frames this more innocent time leading up to and during this couple’s honeymoon. It is also a period when the fault of just about anything in a relationship unfortunately falls upon women. Compared to today, the early 1960’s was a time of greater innocence, which also inversely means less enlightenment, and that plays a key element in the story.
Cooke and McEwan display cinematic enlightenment, as the picture runs a healthy 1 hour and 50 minutes. The time feels about right, because it could have dragged on for 2 hours and 15 minutes. Now, the third act does seem condensed and rushed – with much more material probably left in the book - but the filmmakers used good judgment by choosing frugality during the film’s closing steps.
The pivotal moment does transpire on Chesil Beach, and hence the film is aptly named. While standing on that beach, the hope is that Edward and Flo have built enough of a foundation to proudly and bravely face the storm.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.