A Novelistic Portrayal

On Chesil Beach is a heartfelt and deeply affecting take on Ian McEwan’s 2007 Booker Prize-nominated novel. Set in 1962, a time when British society was still emerging from the shadow of post-war austerity, the plot sees two naïve, innocent graduates on their honeymoon in a stifling Dorset boarding house, enduring what will fast become a wedding night from hell. Flashbacks flesh out their backstories, as we soon learn just where their demons stem from.

Saoirse Ronan plays Florence Ponting, an accomplished violinist who comes from a well-to-do family, headed by Violet (Emily Watson), a sniffy Oxford don, and Geoffrey (Samuel West), an ultra-competitive businessman. Her new husband is Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), whose own roots are more working-class. His father Lionel (Adrian Scarborough) is a kindly headmaster while his mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) is a free-spirited artist who suffers from mental health issues following a terrible head injury.

On their wedding night, Florence and Edward find it awkward and painful rather than the expected hearts and flowers; the next morning there is a confrontation on the nearby titular beach that leads to revelations and recriminations. With the script written by McEwan – the first time he’s ever adapted one of his own novels for the screen – the structure feels very novelistic, with scenes shifting back and forth through time, but the film is rigorous enough to withstand it.

Theatre and television director Dominic Cooke, who makes his feature film debut here, manages to convey the integrity of McEwan’s novel, while his dream cast are splendid. The three-time Oscar nominee Ronan is particularly strong in a mature role (and one that provides a wonderful bookend to her breakthrough in Joe Wright’s 2007 McEwan adaptation, Atonement). Relative newcomer Howle is also magnetic on screen; you feel his pain all the way through.

Thematically, the film resonates, exploring a time when social pressures left youngsters confused and forced to repress their sexual desires. An achingly emotional experience, On Chesil Beach is also a beautifully and boldly designed work. Only the finale, which McEwan extended from the novel, feels like a minor betrayal of what was otherwise an excellent adaptation.

On Chesil Beach is in cinemas now. Find out more here. 

James Mottram

1. Still from On Chesil Beach.