When I was a teenager Ian McEwan was one of my favourite authors. I used to read everything I could. I started with Enduring Love and went from there. There is something about the way he writes characters and constructs a narrative that I was mad about. But I have to admit that I haven’t really bothered with him in recent years. I bought Sweet Tooth but, never being blown away by the synopsis, it remains unread. The Nut Shell was one of my must reads but it’s sat in my TBR pile for far too long. I’ve certainly let my appreciation of McEwan lapse over the years. It was, in fact, On Chesil Beach that was my last read by the writer. I absolutely loved it but it was a difficult read. It’s so awkwardly British and repressed but so fantastically written. It’s a fabulous character study about two young people trying to do their marital duty whilst living in a sexually repressed era. It made me physically cringe as I read it but I could not stop reading. So, I was fairly excited by the decision to adapt the novel, especially as it stars my newest love Saoirse Ronan. However, as we also know, Ian McEwan novels are often hard to adapt. So much of his novel is the inner thoughts of his characters and that’s pretty problematic. And On Chesil Beach is even more insular and held-back than most of this novels. I just couldn’t see how it could be done justice.
The opening line of On Chesil Beach reads “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” It is a line that almost has the tone of a nature documentary: an anthropological study of the young couple on this most important of nights. We are immediately cut off and distanced from the characters as we watch their night unfold. Spectators not intended to connect on an emotional level. The rest of the novella carries on in this tone as it transposes the thoughts and feelings that the nervous new spouses are experiencing as their first intimate moment is inching ever closer. It is a tone that helps to highlight the problematic society in which they lived: their lack of communication and connection about sex that has caused the pair to have very different attitudes towards it.
It is also a tone that would be incredibly difficult to replicate on screen. In the book it doesn’t matter who the pair are. They could be any young couple in pre-sexual revolution England but that doesn’t necessarily work on screen. Witnessed by the fact that the adaptation fails to get it completely right. Although, as a whole, it is incredibly faithful to the original. The story primarily takes place in one setting but flits back and forth to the pair’s past. Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan) are staying in a quaint little Dorset hotel. They are served their evening meal in their room whilst attempting to slip into the roles of husband and wife. However, a massive shadow is hanging over their heads and their anxiety increases as the meal progresses. Only a few steps away sits their marital bed where the pair are expected to consummate their marriage. Something Edward is overly keen to do whilst Florence less so.
As we learn through seemingly endless flashbacks, the couple come from very different backgrounds but met at a CMD rally in Oxford. She is a talented musician with an academic mother (Emily Watson) and engineer father (Samuel West). He is from much humbler beginnings. His father (Adrian Scarborough) is a well-meaning and kind headteacher. His mother (Ann-Marie Duff) was left brain-damaged by an accident so suffers from lapses awareness and suffers moments of eccentricity. However, the couple fall deeply in love from the off and are eager to head down the aisle. Turns out that love was the easy part; it’s the next bit that neither one is quite ready for.
Dominic Cooke, best know as a theatre director, and cinematographer Sean Bobbit, frequent collaborator of Steve McQueen, have managed to translate the 1962 setting quite perfectly onto our screens. Everything about the way the film is shot is beautiful and full of period detail. It manages to create the perfect contrast between the past and the present as we see the sunshine days of their love and the muted loneliness of their marriage night. The glimpses of Edward and Florence during their courtship are sweet and brimming with the hope and joy of young people experience first love. It is a stark contrast to the stilted silences, clenched fists, and meaningful glances that infect the room as their beef and potatoes are served. It’s awkward and it’s difficult to watch but it is necessary to the story. The melancholic and grey look of Chesil Beach itself is the perfect setting for this tragic event. Whilst the greenery of their relationship only highlights the path they should have been on.
However, there is a slight inescapable feeling that the emotional resonance of the night is lost due to the incessant flashbacks. At one point there is a flashback within a flashback. That’s some next level shit that we could have done without. The lack of insight into the characters mental state doesn’t help the flow of the evening and causes some important issues to be lost in translation. The dialogue doesn’t flow naturally and, without that important exposition, can seem nonsensical and bizarre. There are key moments from the novel that certainly don’t have the same impact on screen and it’s a huge shame. Although, not as big a shame as the decision to expand on the book’s original ending. Instead of the whirlwind look at Edward’s future we are dragged into the present day to be given a Hollywood resolution that the story doesn’t need. The book left Florence’s fate ambiguous but here she is given a full history. It is an apology of sorts for that one night but, majorly, just feels like an excuse to get Howle and Ronan in old-person prosthetics and make-up. It is a final act that doesn’t fit with the rest of the film and adds nothing to the story. It is just intended to make audiences feel better.
Although, for the most part On Chesil Beach does a decent job of adapting a difficult story. I never really had any hope that it would be so good but, in the careful hands of Cooke and with such talented leads, the film manages to do a decent job. It certainly does the novel justice for the first two-thirds. I guess, like the Harry Potter epilogue or The Cursed Child, I can just pretend the ending doesn’t exist. Especially if it means I get to watch something so beautiful and brimming with potential. Ian McEwan will never be an easy writer to put on the big screen but with attempts like this I will always be willing to give a new adaptation a go.