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Film Review: On Chesil Beach

7 June 18 words: Alicia Lansom

Based upon Ian McEwan’s novel of the same name, On Chesil Beach follows the lives of a young British couple on their wedding day in 1962.

Director: Dominic Cooke

Starring: Saorise Ronan, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff

Running time: 110 mins

At the story’s centre is Florence Ponting, an upper-class, strait-laced Oxford graduate played by Saoirse Ronan. Florence is prim and proper, spending most of her days practising the violin as part of a classical string quartet. But despite her squareness, she ends up falling for a free-spirited country boy named Edward, played by Billy Howle. The film begins on the day of their wedding, where together they walk along a pebbled beach, discussing music and watching the rolling waves. The couple then arrive at a nearby hotel, where they are set to begin their honeymoon as man and wife. But as the pair dine in their room, they appear uneasy, nervously pushing food around their plates and hardly speaking a word.

The film then casts back to the day of their first meeting. The feeling is instantly more joyous, as the young couple walk through a sunny field and pick flowers, both of them relaxed and happy in one another’s company. But this moment of carefreeness is short lived as the scene cuts back to present day, where Edward’s knee is shaking under the table, and Florence fidgets and avoids eye contact.

In spite of it’s sometimes theatrical moments, both lead actors deliver this sad and disheartening tale with empathy and tenderness

With their dinner hardly touched, Edward starts to tentatively make his way across the room to Florence, but she is visibly stiff and unresponsive, her hands trembling as he begins to kiss her. The flashbacks then start to happen more frequently, showing summer days playing cricket together and introducing one another to their families. Florence seems smitten and full of youth as they hold hands and share affectionate touches, worlds away from the nature in which she is treating Edward now.

As the cautious seduction continues, he seems to become increasingly agitated with her unwillingness to move things forward. But the retrospective sequences allude to Florence always having reservations around sexuality, as we see her recoil at one of Edwards previous attempts at the back of a cinema, or her being utterly repulsed by the vivid descriptions she reads in a marriage and sex manual. Scenes such as these suggest that perhaps Florence’s attitudes could be related to her living a sheltered existence in the repressed conservatism of the 1950’s. But it becomes clear as the film unfolds that her aversion to sex is not due to virginal shyness and is instead something much more serious.

Overall, the film delivers a sensitive approach to a young couples private struggles, which at times seemed as though it would have been more at home on the stage than on the screen. But in spite of it’s sometimes theatrical moments, both lead actors deliver this sad and disheartening tale with empathy and tenderness. Concluded with a beautiful lingering shot of the rocky shoreline, On Chesil Beach gives an intimate look into lives of two young people and questions the idea of what it truly means to be lovers.

Did you know? Carey Mulligan was previously attached to star in the lead role when Sam Mendes was set to direct.

On Chesil Beach is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday, 14 June

Trailer

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