Cinema Review: On Chesil Beach

There is so much left unsaid, so much that is not explained in this movie. As one of the most highly acclaimed novelists writing in English, Ian McEwan has always ventured deep into the landscape of the mind. But in adapting his own story for the cinema, he has written a screenplay that does not quite achieve the glassy clarity that he manages in his books. It is 1962 and the newlyweds Florence and Edward (Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle) are in the bridal suite of a hotel overlooking a pebbly, wintry beach. Their awkwardness is accentuated by a pair of smarmy waiters who laugh audibly after leaving the room (it briefly cheapens the mood because it is overdone), and when it comes to the act of consummation, Florence is unable to overcome her shyness? her terror? her repugnance? What led to this conjugal failure is then eked out – but not fully – through flashbacks in which, unfortunately, we learn more about Edward than Florence. His mother suffered irreparable brain damage when struck by the door of a train carriage (it is an essentially McEwan scene) resulting in working-class Edward and his Diane Arbus-like twin sisters living in a household of emotional anarchy. Florence’s family are wannabe toffs and there are a couple of fleeting suggestions that her sexual dysfunction may have come about as a result of mistreatment at the hands of her father. The young couple meet as students at Oxford – he is something of a beatnik and she the leader of a string quartet. This is where (to me) the film’s inconsistency emerges. Edward and Florence are all over each other, with Florence at one point walking miles to throw herself into his arms and kiss passionately in front of a team of cricketers. Her frigidity on the wedding night just didn’t gel with all that preceded it. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful period piece with compelling performances and an unexpected moment of sweet pathos when Edward’s mum paints her version of an Uccello masterpiece.

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