ON CHESIL BEACH
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.
NEW YORK TIMES
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.