On Chesil Beach (2017)

On Chesil Beach
Director: Dominic Cooke
Writer: Ian McEwan
Based on: his own novel
Cast: Billy Howle, Saoirse Ronan, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson,
Samuel West
Seen on: 5.7.2018

Content note: (sexualized) abuse

Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan) come from different backgrounds – Edward being working class and Florence more upper class. That hasn’t kept them from falling in love, though. Now they finally got married and have reached the beach where they’re supposed to spend their honeymoon. But with the wedding night and associated pressures looming over them, they are not really at ease.

On Chesil Beach is pretty much feel bad cinema with sharply observed characters and relationships. It wasn’t quite as depressing as I feared it would be, nor was it as good as I hoped it would be. It is very far from bad, though.

Film poster showing Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan on a beach, looking in opposite directions.

I remember reading On Chesil Beach and being pretty much devastated by it (after Atonement and The Cement Garden that was the reaction I expected to have to a McEwan novel). So before going into the film, I mentally steeled myself for all of the sadness. And I don’t know if I made the book’s sadness bigger in my memory or if the film just didn’t have the same emotional impact, but it didn’t completely break me.

It was still very sad and tears were definitely shed. You get this young couple who could have been so very perfect for each other. But the way society treats sex, surrounded with taboos and misinformation, makes any kind of sensible approach to the subject impossible. And that’s not even touching on the fact that Florence was sexually abused and doesn’t even begin to have the vocabulary to put any of it into words.

Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle in the film.

The script really hones in on that problem and the characters. They and their relationship constellation are both very particular, but also not that unusual, making them both feel very real as individuals and emblematic for an entire society and its issues. Both Howl and Ronan are really great and make this balance work.

Nevertheless the film didn’t blow me away. It just needed a last little bit of something to really make the emotion of it work, to really get all the way where it needed to get. It gets far enough to still be worth seeing, but falls just short of being really great.

Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan in the film.

Summarizing: Maybe not a film you need to see in the cinema, but still a very good watch.

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