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Non-Review Review: On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach is a messy and awkward adaptation of Ian McEwan’s story, adapted by the writer from his own work.

McEwan’s source material might be better described as a “novella” than as a “novel”, with the writer describing it as such and the book generating some small controversy when shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Indeed, the film strains when it tries to extend the novella’s core idea out into a feature-length film, often struggling to find focus and to hold its attention. The result is a very uneven piece of work.

Love on the rocks.

However, On Chesil Beach provides an intriguing mess of interesting ideas and solid performances. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle cannot hold the film together, but provide a set of interesting characters that provide the closest thing that the film has to a throughline. The film works best when it is willing to focus on these two characters together, when it moves away from its free-association aesthetic towards something more concrete.

On Chesil Beach never quite coheres into a fully-formed film, often feeling more like a televison movie or a stage play than a theatrical release. Still, there is something interesting playing beneath the surface, often lost in heavy-handed writing or awkward segues.

It ain’t no picnic.

The bulk of On Chesil Beach unfolds on the wedding night of Florence and Edward two highly-educated young people with a common interest in music, planning to spend their first evening together as husband and wife at the eponymous seaside location. However, On Chesil Beach makes a conscious point to expand its scope beyond that particular moment. It explores what brought these characters to this point, and what lies for them beyond.

However, the film is also very firmly anchored in the idea that Edward might always exist on that night and in that place, a life shaped by one decision made in the heat of one awkward moment. It is hardly a particularly novel idea, but On Chesil Beach commits to the idea. There is something intriguing in the idea that so much of a life can come down to one choice, and the reality that this choice is often a result of emotion rather than reason.

The world’s smallest violin.

However, On Chesil Beach struggles slightly with the execution of this core premise. There are a wealth of interesting ideas and implications within the film, from the consequences of the sexual repression that informed so much of British society during the fifties through to the idea that everybody carries their own traumas and secret with them, even into a marriage. Ronan and Howle work hard to sell this idea of deep-rooted dysfunction.

Nevertheless, there is a clumsiness in how On Chesil Beach tries to make its point, a heavy-handedness in the manner in which it chooses to tell its story. Over its runtime, the film keeps cutting constantly back and forth to explain who these characters are and how they came to this moment; how Edward first met Florence, how Edward truly fell in love with Florence, all of the hints and mistakes and affection in between.

Putting the matter to bed.

However, many of these beats feel obvious and awkward, hitting exactly what the audience expects. The film tries to develop a complex psychology for both Edward and Florence, but the flashbacks present them as something akin to Freudian wind-up dolls. As messy as the structure might be, as clumsy as the transitions might appear, On Chesil Beach attempts to simplify its central characters to a set of basic inputs and outputs, transparent causes and effects.

In terms of storytelling, this constant cutting back and forth undercuts the real heart of the film, the scenes between Edward and Florence. These scenes are enough to convey to the audience enough of the necessary information, and Ronan and Howle are perfectly capable of playing the film as an extended and claustrophobic duologue. On Chesil Beach is at its best when it strips away its contrivances, and has its two characters talking around one another.

Shore thing.

In its best moments, there is an honesty and vulnerability in On Chesil Beach, a creeping sense of discomfort that is rooted in a familiar sense of repression and anxiety. It is a credit to On Chesil Beach, and to its two central performers, that this awkwardness and uncertainty never feels like a cliché. It never feels like a punchline or a caricature. Instead, there is something genuinely moving in these interactions. However, there is also a clumsiness.

This clumsiness is perhaps best demonstrated by the insistence on offering – not one, but – two separate codas to the primary story. Either of these codas would be largely unnecessary on their own terms, illustrating something that would be very obvious had they been removed completely. Taken together, these two attempts to bookend the narrative suggest a lack of trust in both the audience and the performers.

Royally plucked.

Produced by BBC Films, On Chesil Beach evokes one of the channel’s high quality period dramas. In terms of texture, it feels very similar to the adaptation of Parade’s End starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall. There is a sense that this version of On Chesil Beach might work better as a stage play or a television movie than as a theatrical release. This is not to diminish the film in any significant way; the BBC is a top-notch production house.

The film marks the theatrical debut of director Dominic Cooke, who did fantastic work with the BBC on The Hollow Crown. There is a quiet confidence to his work here, most obvious in the small and stately moments, a wonderful long take that navigates a piano, or a long slow zoom out sequence that follows Florence and Edward as they separate on the beach, allowing the space to grow between them and emphasising their isolation.

Clouds on the horizon.

On Chesil Beach is an interesting film, almost held together by two wonderful central performances and a number of intriguing ideas. At its best, On Chesil Beach captures a genuine sense of emotional vulnerability and mutual misunderstanding. However, this gets lost in the clutter. Early in the film, Edward boasts that local fishermen can tell where they are on the beach by the size and texture of the stones. Here, they are just thrown together.

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4 Responses

  1. Good review. I probably will go see the movie anyway because I like Ian McEwan and literary type films.

  2. What is a non-review review?

    I like your review. Or non-review. Whatever it is. I’d like to share it on my blog, if that’s alright with you. It will post tomorrow, Saturday May 25. I’ll link to your blog and hopefully generate some more traffic for you.

    Keep up the good work!

    • Ha! It’s just the title I came up with almost a decade ago when I started this blog. Maybe out of modesty, maybe because I didn’t want to feel like I was confined by the popular expectations of a review format – “it stars…”, “the performances are…”, “I rate this…” I kinda stuck with it, though.

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