Film Film Reviews

What Might Have Been: On Chesil Beach


THE novels of the quite brilliant Ian McEwan often make for great cinema as evidenced by Enduring Love (2004) and Atonement (2007) amongst many others.

Now add to the list On Chesil Beach shown on the final day of the BFI London Film Festival at a packed Curzon Mayfair.

The focal point for the story, that begins in the early 1960’s, is the marriage evening of Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan). Two beautiful individuals in the prime of life. Both possessing first-class degrees but from contrasting backgrounds. Sitting anxiously in a hotel room close to Chesil Beach in Dorset and nervously waiting to consummate their marriage.

Florence, an exceptional violinist and leader of a string quartet, comes from an upper class background, with parents that would frighten the strongest of people. Mother Violet Ponting (Emma Watson) is an arrogant Oxford Don who speaks frequently to Iris Murdoch and possesses a poisonous tongue. At one stage, she warns Florence against ‘screeching’ despite the fact that in her hands the violin is a thing of musical beauty.

Father Geoffrey (Samuel West) is a successful businessman who is fiercely competitive as is evidenced when he thrashes Edward at tennis. He will do anything to win. There is also a sinister side to him as we are fleetingly made aware of when he takes Florence sailing – an episode that might explain Florence’s actions (or lack of them) on top of the marital bed.

In contrast, Edward’s family is more humble, working class and homely. Father Lionel Mayhew (Adrian Scarborough) is a kindly headmaster who cycles to and from school while mother Marjorie (Anne Marie-Duff) is a talented artist (and wonderful cook) who suffers from mental issues following a horrible incident at the railway station when she was hit by an opening door (a truly shocking scene). She spends most of her time in a state of undress.

Edward, groundsman at the local cricket club, rarely has a book out of his hand and knows the sound of every bird known to man and woman.  Like Geoffrey, he is a little hot headed as we see when a gentleman derides a university colleague for being a Jew.

Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about how Edward and Florence first met (at a CND meeting in Oxford) and their subsequent courtship. How Florence is welcomed with open arms by Edwards’ family (‘marry her’ urges Lionel). In contrast, Florence’s parents believe she is marrying below her station. Even the family vicar questions whether she is doing the right thing in marrying Edward.

All the time, the expected consummation edges ever nearer. First the unfinished meal in the hotel room where they drink watered down red wine, then the  initial fumblings on the bed, Florence’s questioning as to how many lovers Edward has had, the removal of stockings (but not Edwards’s socks – enough to put off any woman) and finally a failed consummation although Edwards does find almost instant relief.

It culminates in Florence storming off, fleeing along Chesil Beach with Edward following in her wake. Beside a fishing boat, Florence beseeches him to understand her and to be patient. Will he be? Won’t he be? His decision frames the rest of both their lives.

Years later, when Edward is running a record shop in London, a young school girl asks whether he possesses any Chuck Berry music. It is the trigger which ultimately leads to the film’s finale, at Wigmore Hall in London, a venue which during their courtship the couple visited – and where Edward promised he would sit in the third row when she was successful and performed on stage.

On Chesil Beach is a beautiful film that pulls at your heartstrings (it brought a tear to my eye). It speaks of a time when most couples entered marriage as virgins. When class division was rife, anti-semitism still lingered and the youth of the time were slowly (and I mean slowly) being empowered by music, alcohol, education and love.

The performances are faultless with Howle (The Sense of an Ending) and Ronan (Brooklyn, Atonement) excelling as  the film’s leads. Seemingly madly in love (there is one beautiful scene when they are larking around while Edward is rolling the cricket pitch) until the marital bed (and deep lurking gremlins) gets the better of them.

Watson is waspish as Violet although Anne Marie-Duff delivers the film’s most pulsating performance as Marjorie.

The cinematography (Sean Bobbitt) is magnificent, especially the scenes on Chesil Beach and in Oxford and its surrounding countryside. As for the music, it is sublime (thank you Esther Yoo).

On Chesil Beach does justice to McEwan’s book – helped no doubt by the fact that the author wrote the screenplay. Director Dominic Cooke has put together a film that cannot fail to tear at your heart.

A must see. Take a handkerchief just in case.

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Edward: Billy Howle
Florence: Saoirse Ronan
Geoffrey: Samuel West
Violet: Emma Watson
Lionel: Adam Scarborough
Marjorie: Anne Marie-Duff

Director: Dominic Cooke
Screenplay: Ian McEwan


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