On Chesil Beach

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday May 18, 2018

'On Chesil Beach'
'On Chesil Beach'  

Saoirse Ronan is back in yet another period piece, this time playing a young Englishwoman in 1962. The world is poised on the brink of great societal changes, and Florence (Ronan), who has just completed her university degree, is ready to be part of it - or rather, some parts of it; the sexual liberation thing might not quite be her style.

And yet, she does have a heart and a capacity of romantic love. While attending a meeting of antinuclear missile activists she meets Edward (Billy Howle) and instantly falls for him. Edward isn't an Oxford student like Florence - he's just stumbled onto the meeting by chance, inebriated and tousled, and in a celebratory mood after learning of his own top-notch success at a less esteemed school. It's Edward who first catches sight of Florence, and even as she's becoming smitten with him, he's already hopelessly besotted with her.

Their courtship is completed by various factors, one of them being class. Florence's forceful, driven father (Samuel West) runs an electronics factory, while her mother (Bebe Cave) plays the role of a society wife to varnished, brittle perfection. Edward comes from a much more modest background, and his family is beset with complications of a medical sort; years earlier, Edward's mother (Anne-Marie Duff) suffered an accident that left her brain damaged. While not dangerous her behavior is still highly erratic. Florence, however, responds warmly to Edward's mother, intuitively hitting on therapeutic approaches for interacting with her; she also takes charge of the home, cleaning and cooking for the grateful family. ("Marry that girl!" Edward's father (Adrian Scarborough) orders, in no uncertain terms.)

We learn about these complicated backstories through a series of flashbacks on the couple's wedding night. They're staying in a matrimonial room at a fancy beachside hotel; the bed, with its flagrant red mattress and pillows, practically throbs in time with the shy, feverish couple while they awkwardly dine on their room service dinner, two uniformed waiters standing attention over them. Later, when the waiters have departed, the two forsake their meal for nourishment of another sort - and that's where things go suddenly, horribly awry.

To say more would be to spoil the film, but here's some advice: Pay close attention to the flashbacks. There's a lot in this film that remains unspoken, but the specific memories we see tell us everything. Meantime, the visual narration created by director Dominic Cooke, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and production designer Suzie Davies draws us into a world very different from our own - a time and place where artfully constructed, obsessively maintained social facades were absolutely required and rigidly enforced, even as all the usual human frailty, cruelty, and misery simmers under the surface. Sometimes the real tragedy is that people simply don't know how to communicate their pain and terror; equally tragic is that they don't know how to listen to what someone else may be trying to tell them.

Ian McEwan adapts his own novel to the screen and mostly does a credible job of it. There are strands of humor that lighten and lift this movie, even as they weave a disquieting net. There are a few moments when the script pushes to the forefront and it's as though we're seeing McEwan underlining passages in red ink: A promise made in a music hall that's so italicized we know it's going to have significance later on is one such moment, and a fraught confrontation on the titular beach, where the dialogue takes on a rote and hollow (as well as dramatically forced) quality is another.

All that being said, this is still a moving and immersive film. Thank the sound design for much of that immersive effect, as well as the musical choices - Rachmaninoff, anyone? - and the score by Dan Jones. But the star of the show is also its steady and compelling center: Saoirse Ronan outshines her cast mates here and remains the radiant focus of any project she's part of.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.