Based on Ian McEwan’s Booker Prize-nominated novella of the same name, romantic drama On Chesil Beach is the directorial debut of Dominic Cooke. The plot centres around newlyweds Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) as they arrive at their idyllic honeymoon suite by the sea. As simmering societal pressures come to the forefront on the wedding night, are they doomed to fail, or will they live happily ever after?
Coming-of-age flashbacks shed light on Florence and Edward’s characters, their complex family dynamics and the blossoming of their syrupy sweet romance. The narrative structure works well, cleverly juxtaposing their backgrounds with the foreground of the plot. Well educated and typically hoity-toity, the young couple’s awkwardness is effectively played for laughs to a degree in the beginning. However, as anxiety and sexual frustrations reach a crushing and cringeworthy crescendo, underlying sinister themes wash-up with the tide.
The production feels old fashioned and understated, with skilled cinematographer Sean Bobbit’s pebbly landscapes providing a bleak backdrop for the performances to unravel upon. Ronan and Howle are very good in their respective roles, and effectively capture the ever-changing layers of excitement and apprehension when embarking on a new relationship. Aside from the central pairing, there’s great experience in the supporting cast which includes Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff and Adrian Scarborough. Their portrayals highlight Britain’s 1960s class divide, which presents additional challenges for Florence and Edward.
On Chesil Beach is a charming yet glitched adaptation of McEwan’s work, not benefitting from storytelling time-jumps which struggle to translate well to the big screen, partly due to dodgy prosthetic make-up. To all intents and purposes, Cooke’s retelling is an interesting relationship dissection lifted by striking performances, particularly from Saoirse Ronan who continues to go from strength to strength. The reflective yet ropey final act leaves a sour aftertaste to what, without it, would be perfectly palatable cinema.