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Film review: On Chesil Beach

Film & TV

On Chesil Beach is a moving story of a young love plagued by reluctance, innocence and ignorance, writes Susan Mitchell.

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These days it seems like filmmakers are increasingly relying on published books on which to base their films. It can be a mixed blessing. For those who have previously read the novel On Chesil Beach, it’s reassuring to note the author, Ian McEwan, also wrote the screenplay for Dominic Cooke’s film adaptation.

The plot follows two young Oxford university graduates: Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), who marry in 1962. It’s a time of sexual freedom, but the young lovers are virgins and have difficulty consummating their marriage.

Florence and Edward are middle class English. Florence’s family is further up the class ladder than Edward’s – and snobbish about it. She is a passionate violinist who has devoted herself entirely to her music. Edward’s tastes are for the emerging rock and roll genre. His family spend its time watching over Edward’s mother, who suffers from a brain injury caused by a train accident and who has an inclination to strip off her clothes. Despite their differences, Florence and Edward fall deeply in love with each other.

The setting of the film’s climax is a stuffy crimson bedroom at a conventional seaside hotel on Chesil Beach in Dorset. Florence and Edward’s dinner is delivered by a couple of smarmy, smutty waiters early in the evening and they eat it with an over-powering awareness of the red velvet-covered double bed looming over them. Edward is as over eager to do “it” as Florence is reluctant.

The result is a disaster as Florence feels to a stony windswept beach.

Unlike the book, the film has a somewhat concocted ending which cinema seems to demand. Nevertheless, I found tears filling my eyes.

On Chesil Beach is a moving, well acted, brilliantly directed and most importantly understated film. It is a quiet but powerful story of hurt and sadness. And love unfulfilled.

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