On Chesil Beach is a strange, enigmatic little novel; a perfectly formed yet elusive creature, focused exclusively on a single, inconclusive event – or rather, a single, inconclusive non-event.
It delves deep into the ambitions and emotions of Florence and Edward, a once carefree, highly educated young couple, who embark upon married life brimming with optimism and excitement.
They take their honeymoon in a cheerless seaside hotel overlooking the appropriately bleak expanse of Chesil Beach in Dorset, a landscape that at once offers endless possibilities beyond the distant horizon, but which, ultimately, leaves two individuals stranded, adrift and alone in a vast emptiness.
The screenplay of Ian McEwan’s novella has, wisely, been given over to the writer himself. Thus, he is entirely responsible for handing evocative visual possibilities to the astute eye of multi-Olivier Award winning theatre director Dominic Cooke, while at the same time presenting him with the challenge of translating the inner workings of the human mind, best captured through the medium of words rather than pictures.
McEwan’s novels are a joy to read but, frequently, less satisfying to watch. Interestingly, the screen version of his magnificent Atonement was at its most effective in the first section, where the contaminated innocence of a young girl was beautifully portrayed by the 13-year old Saoirse Ronan.
Now Ronan is all grown up and has emerged as one of the most arresting of the current generation of screen actors. And again, it is she who must take the lion’s share of the credit for making watchable this peculiarly bloodless adaptation.
The so-called Swingin’ Sixties were not, by any means, all about free love and flower power. On the contrary. The early years of the decade presented a monochrome social landscape, straight-laced and colourless. Not by accident is McEwan’s story set in 1962, a pivotal year when Britain was still sexually repressed and inwardly focused. Sex was the big no-no, a subject discussed neither in the home nor in polite society. As Philip Larkin memorably put it in his jaundiced poem Annus Mirabilis:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
And in the way that the screenplay fills out in greater detail the back story of the two central characters, another famous Larkin couplet comes to mind: They fuck you up, your mum and dad, They may not mean to but they do.
There are a handful of wonderful cameo performances as the couple’s parents – from Emily Watson and Timothy West as, respectively, Florence’s snobbish academic mother and domineering captain of industry father, and from Adrian Scarborough as Edward’s mild mannered schoolteacher father and a ferociously fearless Anne-Marie Duff as his brain damaged artist mother. Given the mixed messages emanating from their home lives, it is no wonder that these two hapless young people’s attempt to consummate their marriage turns out to be a clumsy, unmitigated and sorrowful disaster.
Cooke crafts some wonderful visual treats in his sensitive handling of the golden years of young love and courtship in leafy rural England and among the soaring spires of Oxford. In contrast, he presents the newly married couple buttoned up to the neck – she in a middle-aged turquoise blue costume (echoes of Lady Diana Spencer’s official engagement outfit), he in an unyielding black suit and ill-fitting white shirt. Period details are beautifully realised, not least the in the tasteless hotel room with its grubby, voyeuristic waiters, dreadful food and primly made-up bed, which forms the central focus of the unfolding drama.
The long, flat, receding pebble beach is a character in itself. Cooke focuses the camera again and again on Edward and Florence’s feet in their uncomfortable, unsuitable shoes, crunching and stumbling along the shingle, with no destination in view.
Ronan is, as usual, riveting to watch. Cool and composed, she effortlessly inhabits every last iota of her character though one could have done without the final scenes of prosthetic old age, which serve only as a too-neat plotline finale. Billy Howle is equal to her during the early years of their relationship, registering as a rumpled, puppy-like figure, with a tendency to explosions of fury. But he can also adopt a rather unfortunate glassy-eyed, slack-jawed expression, which bleeds into his portrayal of male frustration, during his pitifully short marriage and in the years after.
Ultimately, for all its visual lushness and sensitive performances, this low-key, tastefully restrained film never reaches the emotional highs and lows of the original and one cannot help but feel that it should have been allowed to remain as the small, glittering literary gem it undoubtedly is.
On Chesil Beach is at Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast until 7 June 2018.