On Chesil Beach
by Hope Madden
Saoirse Ronan is a treasure. The fact that she follows up one raucous, very American coming of age film (Lady Bird) with a delicate, very British coming of age film (On Chesil Beach) without hitting a false note is hardly a surprise. She is maybe the most versatile talent of her generation.
On Chesil Beach reunites the performer with novelist Ian McEwan, whose Atonement garnered Ronan her first Oscar nomination back at the tender age of 13.
Adapting his own novella this time around, McEwan deliberates on the romantic struggle of two young lovers, Florence Ponting (Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle, who also co-stars with Ronan in an upcoming adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull).
Florence is a highly-strung classical musician from money. Edward comes from less, hopes to write history books and sometimes behaves rashly. Regardless of their differences, they are endearingly in love.
They are also identifiably at an age where a person may see this very moment in time as the only moment, the only way it will ever be, the only way they will ever feel. This terrifying, ignorant, innocent moment is something Howle, Ronan, McEwan and director Dominic Cooke capture effectively.
Elsewhere, they falter.
The film and its story revolve around one night on Chesil Beach where the two newlyweds contemplate their present and future while we’re given a glimpse of their past. For a number of different reasons (some explained, some just suggested) Florence has an abiding revulsion of sex.
Edward does not.
Expectations, yearnings and dread come to a boil on their wedding night, when a lack of wisdom and an abundance of insecurity convince the two (one of them quite rashly) to make a questionable decision.
Though Ronan’s performance perfectly captures both Florence’s love and her reticence, Howle struggles to convince as an impetuous, even volatile young lover. He seems nervous and sweet, and every sudden outburst feels out of place.
Director Dominic Cooke, known primarily for stage work, has trouble creating a welcoming atmosphere. Cooke keeps you at arm’s length from the lovers, less likely to empathize with them than to judge.
The gravity of one rash decision weighs heavily on both, and though McEwan’s beloved pages may make that felt, Dominic’s film does not, so when we revisit Edward years after that pivotal moment at the beach, it’s tough to buy his situation or feel much for him.
On Chesil Beach is a pretty film and a nice story, but never finds the depth to break your heart.