Compatibility is a tricky business, even on the best of days, like your wedding…
It is summer 1962, and England is still a year away from huge social changes: Beatlemania, the sexual revolution and the Swinging Sixties. This is when we first encounter Florence and Edward (Saorise Ronan & Billy Howle), a young couple in their early 20s, on the day of their marriage. Now on their honeymoon, they are dining in their room at a stuffy, sedate hotel near Chesil Beach. The air in which they exist is more tense and awkward, as the prospect of consummating their marriage approaches and from a series of flashbacks, we learn about the differences between them; their attitudes, temperaments and their drastically different backgrounds, as well as watch them falling deeply in love. Out on the beach on their fateful wedding day, one of them makes a major decision that will utterly change both of their lives forever. This a film about two people, both defined by their upbringing, bound by the social mores of another era.
The reality is, I don’t care how beloved the book based on the film is, things just don’t always translate and with On Chesil Beach we get a movie that looks very pretty with leads trying to sell this awkward love story but the meat of the material just isn’t there and we get a star trying to hard to make it all work and another lead who is just floundering in meandering material.
Director Dominic Cooke working from the novel by Ian McEwan who also adapted it for the screen certainly do have a keen sense of trying to manufacture and manipulate the emotions of an audience into a love affair that we’ll just get swept away in. The effort is there as Cooke is a reasonable storyteller and takes his skill from TV to a feature film for the first time and having previously done The Hollow Crown series he isn’t afraid to try and craft some big visual tableaus.
Sadly I think the real issue lies in the words on the page, as the young male character Edward felt disjointed and out of place while the Florence character always felt a little bit put on and overly manufactured as she tries to rebel against the societal norms in her own unique ways. Even the framing devices of the flashbacks in the film didn’t really flesh out any genuine passion between these two characters just how they awkwardly enjoyed each other’s company and then eventually got married because they were supposed to. Nothing every really felt tragic in this supposed romance, they were just two people who met each other at the wrong times in their lives. I haven’t read the book but you can feel a fair bit of character exposition that gets dropped by the wayside because when we see these people on screen they just feel like the ‘Coles Notes’ version of what the author wanted them to be.
The being said, the always stalwart and exceptionally talented Saorise Ronan did the absolute best she could to drag this material out of the emotional mediocrity that it was mired in but even her exceptional talents couldn’t save this one from the muck. On the other side of the coin, young Billy Howle playing opposite a powerhouse like Ronan was simply out of place and totally outmatched. He flounders in the muddy material and gives no real nuance to a character that needed someone more skilled to pull the layers and the depth out of the pages. Neither of our leads had much of anything to work with and the balance of the ensemble was mostly forgotten. The film was meant to be carried as a 2 actor job, and no matter how much extra weight Saorise Ronan tried to carry, it simply wasn’t enough.
Ultimately, On Chesil Beach strives for a semblance of pedigree as a film and a glimmer of passion as a narrative but only attends a moderate level of acceptability on both fronts as the material was a little too hollow and lacking while only one of the leads was capable of really giving a performance that made audience have any kind of real emotion while watching it.