If you’re looking for the perfect film to watch with your parents, this isn’t it. Viewers in search of a buttoned-down, subtly sentimental period drama will get exactly what they expect – as well as an excruciating insight into the most awkward wedding night ever conceived (sorry).

Ian McEwan once again turns screenwriter to adapt his slim 2007 novel, resulting in a touching portrait of two young people who take to their hotel bedroom in 1962 completely unprepared for the unspoken expectations of their wedding night. The newlyweds Florence and Edward reflect back on the course of their relationship when tensions arise. McEwan’s signature writing style is so focussed on interior thoughts that, in this (mostly) faithful adaptation, much of the burden of expression is passed to the actors. The ever brilliant Saoirse Ronan has an upper-class accent twanging like a tightened violin; the equally talented Billy Howle inescapably resembles a low-budget Eddie Redmayne. The supporting cast are also very strong, including a sensitive yet taciturn performance from Adrian Scarborough, and a forceful turn from Samuel West, portraying the two ends of the dad spectrum.

‘Reactions to the more uncomfortable scenes are likely to divide viewers: laughing out of awkwardness slightly diminishes the emotional impact of the story’

The film’s general mood of lost opportunities is mostly thanks to the lamenting tone of McEwan’s novel, which is worth a read, for those who prefer their awkwardness written rather than embodied. Occasionally this sincerity is undercut by some less-than-convincing child acting, and the unintentionally mawkish “where are they now” scenes. There were definitely a couple of suppressed laughs during the screening – as well as a snore from one comfy Picturehouse seat. Reactions to the more uncomfortable scenes are likely to divide viewers: laughing out of awkwardness slightly diminishes the emotional impact of this story about two young people whose childhood and education weren’t enough to prepare them for the expectations that came with marriage in 1962.

Music is intensely meaningful for Florence and Edward, something reflected in the soundtrack. Classical pieces and early rock and roll tunes communicate personality traits, key moments in their relationship, life stages. This serves to ground the film in its temporal setting, a temporary pause from the ubiquity and immediacy of music in the present day. Aside from a couple of on-the-nose songs, apparently chosen to flag up the specific time period, the music is one of the film’s subtlest storytelling aspects. There are also great stretches of silence, which force you to hear every rustle of clothing, every creak of bedsprings, every tensed muscle.

‘The audience are yearning for them to communicate – and for the film to communicate to the audience, expressing the internal and emotional turmoil that the characters experience’

A time-shifted coda adds a surprisingly moving note, in spite of some questionable old-age makeup. Director Dominic Cooke suggests that On Chesil Beach departs from period drama tradition by not revelling in nostalgia for the past; in some ways the film’s timeline reflects that. The still cinematography certainly reflects the uptight atmosphere, with the minimum of intrusion efficient at focusing the story on its central relationship. This, however, makes certain mobile shots surprisingly poignant; in particular, a close-up of the pair on the beach which mournfully swings back revealing them increasingly isolated from each other.

In some ways, the intimacy with which McEwan’s narrator explored Florence and Edward’s thoughts in the book becomes the main problem with the film. The audience are yearning for them to communicate – and for the film to communicate to the audience, expressing the internal and emotional turmoil that the characters experience. Yet despite the universally superb acting, it won’t be enough for some viewers. The physical distance between the married couple isn’t sufficient to communicate their private emotional thoughts. What remains is silence, a consequence of the inability to express what is meaningful and personal; meaning, washed out, along with the pebbles on Chesil Beach.

With thanks to Picturehouse Exeter for providing tickets to this screening.
Image credit: Gareth James

 

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