Adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel of the same name, On Chesil Beach follows newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) as they honeymoon on the English coast. It is rather drab by modern standards – the beach consisting mostly of pebbles and the hotel resembling something from Fawlty Towers – but for 1962, the year the film is predominately set in, could legitimately be described as exotic. Through flashbacks we see their upbringings – Florence grew up in a well to do household and has ambitions of being a professional violinist, while Edward is the son of a teacher and dreams of writing history books – and we are given a sense that their relationship is headed for crisis.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tensions for the most part centre around sex and more specifically Florence’s lack of interest in it. Their interactions which at first are sweet and touching become increasingly awkward and forced. Edward, like most men of the time, sees Florence as deficient and out of line. It is an intriguing set up that makes us ponder what love really is by taking away what is deemed to be an essential element.
Unfortunately for all the subversive potential of the plot its delivery is far too subdued and restrained. Director Dominic Cooke, who is well known for his work in the theatre, gives us a very stagey adaptation of McEwan’s novel. The dialogue is often awkward and over-pronounced, sounding more like a Radio 4 audio play than a film.
It may have been a natural move for McEwan to adapt his own work, but the script could have benefited from a fresh set of eyes. Too much respect is given to the source material and little effort is made to make the book suitable for the screen. The camera work is far too static and sucks any kind of life out of the film. I was left with the feeling that On Chesil Beach would have been better if it had stayed on the page. The filmmakers fail to deliver a film that justifies the adaptation and very little is done to make the story cinematic or original.
Unlike Merchant Ivory Productions, such as A Room with a View and Howards End, that breathed new life into classic British novels, On Chesil Beach is afraid to take risks and too often falls flat. There are already enough safe and slightly dull British literary adaptations and Cooke’s film fails to distinguish itself from the average BBC period drama. At a time when films like Call Me by Your Name and God’s Own Country are being made, Florence and Edward’s walks along the pebble beach seems to signify an approach that is stuck in the past.
On Chesil Beach may be designed to stir the melancholy of love lost but its delivery is too staged and lacking in energy to have a lasting effect on the viewer. Sweeping romance is put to one side in this stilted and overly mannered drama.