The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - THETAKE CRITICS’ CHOICE -


It’s tempt­ing to go into im­me­di­ate rap­tures about the act­ing, which is un­de­ni­ably wonderful. But that wouldn’t be fair be­cause this is a qui­etly mov­ing tri­umph right across the board – from McEwan’s beau­ti­fully pared-back screen­play, through the glo­ri­ously evoca­tive pro­duc­tion de­sign to the ef­fort­less sto­ry­telling from di­rec­tor Do­minic Cooke, a the­atre man mak­ing a stun­ning fea­ture-film de­but. Ro­nan, whose first big break came at 13 in an­other McEwan adap­ta­tion, Atone­ment, and who just seems to be get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter, is sen­sa­tion­ally good here, del­i­cately con­vey­ing Florence’s charms and con­tra­dic­tions. This is a young wo­man who is calm, kind, cap­ti­vat­ing but de­cep­tively tough and de­mand­ingly com­mit­ted to her mu­sic. Only oc­ca­sion­ally does she al­low just a hint of a long­buried dark se­cret. But what is it? Edward’s prob­lem is more ob­vi­ous. Ever since she was struck by a train door, his bo­hemian, art-lov­ing mother has been brain-dam­aged, al­beit in a way that leaves her danc­ing naked around the gar­den or fran­ti­cally stick­ing pic­tures into scrap­books that only she can un­der­stand. Anne-Marie Duff is an un­in­hib­ited joy in the role and the scene where she is gen­tly sorted out by Florence is a touch­ing de­light.


The trans­for­ma­tion from Saoirse’s turn in Lady Bird could hardly be more marked: coiled through­out like a bound um­brella, her voice low­ered sig­nif­i­cantly in reg­is­ter. Though the temp­ta­tion to call him “Nearly Red­mayne” is close to over­whelm­ing, Billy Howle is also strong as the be­fud­dled, earnest gram­mar-school boy. There is a spark be­tween the ac­tors. But it is dead­ened by ret­i­cence. The pic­ture has some wry fun with the damp­ness of Bri­tish life. The food served in their ho­tel room looks aw­ful, but the snig­ger­ing wait­ers still in­sist upon “sil­ver service”. The film-mak­ers al­low no hint that cul­ture is about to change. For all that, there is a sense that On Ch­e­sil Beach has gone off half-cocked (sorry). One tiny out­break of care­less­ness takes on the char­ac­ter of synec­doche. It is pressed home that Florence is the child of hy­per-snobs. Yet she holds her knife as if it were a pen. Such peo­ple would be as likely to do that as eat peas with their bare hands. Most dam­ag­ingly, McEwan’s own script can­not find a cin­e­matic sub­sti­tute for the sharp prose that helped us un­der­stand how sex­u­ally be­wil­dered adults could then be. We have, in the decades since 1962, been so bom­barded with sex­ual im­agery that the film’s central premise proves too hard a sell.


Ro­nan may be the keen­est, sub­tlest, smartest ac­tress un­der 30 work­ing in movies to­day, and while Howle’s is a less fa­mil­iar face, it is one of those faces you can’t stop ob­serv­ing. He has some of the half-rough, half-pretty charisma of a young Michael York, and he plays Edward with a per­fect blend of dif­fi­dence and de­fen­sivene. Edward and Florence are crea­tures of their time, but McEwan and Cooke don’t in­sist on their rep­re­sen­ta­tive sta­tus. Their story is highly par­tic­u­lar, rooted in the idio­syn­cra­sies of their fam­i­lies and also in an al­most in­vis­i­ble crime, a ten­dril of evil that wraps it­self around their des­tinies. The gen­tle sur­face of the film cam­ou­flages heart­break and hor­ror. On­screen, On Ch­e­sil Beach loses some in­ten­sity at the end, as the sup­ple sug­ges­tive­ness of McEwan’s prose is re­placed by the stagy lit­er­al­ness of film. Per­haps this couldn’t be avoided. His nov­els are amenable to adap­ta­tion, but al­most al­ways lose a lot in trans­la­tion. En­dur­ing Love and Atone­ment are two re­cent ex­am­ples. On Ch­e­sil Beach is bet­ter than ei­ther of those. It’s a good movie.The book is some­thing more – close to per­fect, I would say – but since both in­car­na­tions em­pha­sise the im­por­tance of tol­er­at­ing hu­man fal­li­bil­ity, I won’t make too much of the dis­crep­ancy.


As a book, On Ch­e­sil Beach is not prime McEwan by any means. It’s dan­ger­ously close to smug in its ret­ro­spec­tive ex­po­sure of Bri­tish pro­pri­ety and vir­ginal ter­rors in the days be­fore the sex­ual revo­lu­tion. “Look how use­less we once were at sex!” is the gen­eral drift. In their hon­ey­moon suite at a coastal guest­house, Florence and Edward haven’t only got that whole rig­ma­role to look for­ward to, but the bleak fore­play of ter­ri­ble food, too. This hind­sight point-scor­ing – about sex, too – un­did the book’s ve­neer of sym­pa­thy for these two stricken novices, and made all of its feints in that di­rec­tion quite pa­tro­n­is­ing. The best hope the film has is to build the love story back up from scratch. Ro­nan breathes some life into Florence, es­pe­cially in her more pan­icked mo­ments: the prospect of the ho­tel staff re-in­trud­ing prompts a mi­nor melt­down that’s un­nerv­ing and funny. But this is way off the level of a Brook­lyn or Lady Bird performanc­e, per­haps be­cause she sim­ply found less to con­nect with in such a prim, un­com­pre­hend­ing char­ac­ter. Meanwhile, Howle, so promis­ing as the young Jim Broad­bent in The Sense of an End­ing , is asked to play Edward as a dorky, mal­adroit soul with the worst kiss­ing tech­nique you can imag­ine.

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