Most romantic films end with a marriage, but in reality, marriage is just the beginning of a more complex story. Usually months of planning and excitement go in to creating a memorable wedding day and all the couple’s energy is focused on the perfect venue, dress or cake. But when it’s finally over, the newly conjoined couple are left alone and the actual business of being marriage stretches before them, a series of hurdles which the unprepared could find insurmountable. How much trickier this would have been in the more innocent middle years of the last century when propriety barely allowed a couple to see each other unchaperoned before they said “I do.”
Ian McEwan’s novella On Chesil Beach set in 1962 is the uncomfortable story of the first few hours in Florence and Edward’s married life as they awkwardly attempt to consummate their union. Circling each other nervously in their worn seaside hotel room, the couple recall aspects of their earlier lives including the shaping influence of their family on their current attitudes and personalities, as well as the chance encounter that brought them happily together. These interspersed memories tell of a romantic love story between two people who seemed destined for one another and certain to be happy, but their physical inexperience hangs heavy between them which leads to recrimination and unexpected truths.
Adapting novels for the screen is never easy and McEwan’s stories are particularly problematic because so much of his writing involves characters’ internalized monologues which can be difficult to replicate on screen without the use of clunky narration or too much expositionary dialogue. Unlike his previous hit Atonement in which director Joe Wright created an emotive portrait of love and war, giving life to one of the author’s finer novels, McEwan has written the screenplay for On Chesil Beach himself, ensuring the protagonists and sentiments remain exactly as he originally wrote them. If not always spritely, it makes for a faithful and sensitive transfer to the screen.
Happily, the project is also a movie debut for director Dominic Cooke, who, fresh from his sensational production of Follies at the National Theatre – which was nothing short of a theatrical triumph, earning its own reprise next year as well as multiple awards. Cooke certainly knows a thing or two about commanding stories of uneven love and the emotive power of long-held infatuations. In fact, watching On Chesil Beach at the London Film Festival last year, the parallels with Follies were striking; both stories are about couples who enter into marriage to escape some aspect of their surroundings and undergo a painful process of self-discovery that pulls them to pieces. But, more importantly, the effect of that decision, made on one particular day, can last a lifetime.
What Cooke brings to the project is the ability to infer so much meaning from a series of tiny signals that illuminate the screen, most notably the frequent focus on hands and mirrors as characters are seen holding linking fingers in moments of distress and need, or squeezing a shoulder to comfort and reassure – we know from Brief Encounter that such a seemingly insignificant gesture can be loaded with meaning, as Alec’s hand on Laura’s shoulder painfully explicates their final ever moment together. Cooke, fully aware of the power of such gestures, uses these small movements again and again to both emphasise the repressed physicality between Florence and Edward, as well as the more straightened expectations of the period. And in turn, this bodily restraint between them only seems to heighten the shock of their attempts at sex.
Production designer Suzie Davies creates a stiff 1960s world in the Dorset hotel room in which the couple plan to spend their first night. It’s clearly a respectable place, not quite high-end but not cheap either which suitably reflects the relative wealth of the couple, fancying itself as a place that offers silver service in the rooms while employing a couple of jack-the-lad waiters who find it hilarious. It manages to be fussy yet stale at the same time and you wouldn’t be surprised to see antimacassars on the chairs in the day room, a place that seems stuck in the past at a time when the nation was on the brink of a youthful revolution that seems a world away from the physical and emotional confines of this young couple. It’s spacious yet is a place of suffocating restriction for Florence in particular.
Saoirse Ronan’s sensitive central performance conveys a weight of expectation on Florence Ponting that has followed her through a bluestocking childhood, and later in the crushing atmosphere of the hotel room, forces her to accept the role of willing wife while being anything but. Working across two-time periods, Ronan neatly treads the line between a warmly confident young woman, raised in a staid environment and certain of the violinist talent that will ensure the success of her quartet, while the flush of seemingly easy romance with Edward Mayhew offers her a freedom and emotional connection that will release her from her family.
But, when the film returns to the hotel room, Ronan also shows the degree to which their earlier relationship had been a chaste fantasy, and once faced with the requirement for physical intimacy, she becomes afraid. In the growing awkwardness between the couple, Ronan carefully depicts the evaporation of Florence’s confidence as fear, confusion and revulsion take their place. And while the film is quite democratic in its attempt to create sympathy for both sides, Ronan’s performance of a virginal young woman, very much of her time and lacking in experience, cast into the unknown is an affecting one.
As her new husband, Billy Howle is an equal mix of contradictions, and he, along with Director Cooke, work hard to prevent him seeming callous. To facilitate this Edward’s story focuses around the easy bohemianism of his family, a clear class divide with the Pontings who beneath a veer of politeness imply he is an unsuitable match for their daughter. Howle in the flashback sections is a charming and affectionate boyfriend who has earned an academic future beyond his expectations and sees the world in rather uncomplicated terms.
In addition, his close family deals elegantly with his mother’s condition, and the audience admires how eagerly Edward welcomes Florence into his more relaxed and supportive home. His love for her seems real, not just a physical abstention, and even in the hotel room, as an eager groom his desire to consummate the relationship is never brusque or progressed without her consent. In the aftermath of their evening Howle reveals Edward’s depth of feeling, particularly in recognition of their quite different perspective on the same events, as well as his stinging feelings of betrayal that make their ultimate moment on the beach crucial to the rest of his life.
On Chesil Beach has a wonderful supporting cast including Sam West and Emily Watson as Florence’s cold and snobbish parents exuding disapproval at every turn, and whose behaviour explains Florence’s own marital reticence. There have only ever been rules and silence in their home, without any attempt at physical affection or to equip Florence for the experiences to ahead. Adrian Scarborough and Anne-Marie Duff are equally excellent as Edward’s loving parents, with Duff in particularly giving a small but powerful performance as a woman damaged by a collision with a train door, keeping her “episodes” just the right side of credible. And while they are a more successful family, Cooke suggests the Mayhews too have failed Edward, giving him a sense of romance but, despite the hardship of their lives, he’s guiless when confronted with people whose surface expression conceal their true emotions.
Sean Bobbit’s cinematography is one of the film’s highlights, and whether it be the stormy vision of the strange pebble beach that so fittingly reflects the turmoil of the newlywed’s relationship, or the sun-drenched nostalgia of countryside picnics and cricket matches during their courtship, Bobbit’s work reflects the emotional tenor of the scene. It is a very British film which comes with everything that tag implies including occasional cosiness and lots of repression. There is a deliberate artfulness to the way in which the film has been constructed, that departs from the book somewhat to create a purposeful impression on the audience which at times feels heavy-handed, as though manipulating the audience to change their response to the characters.
While its quietness may divide viewers, it is nonetheless refreshing to see a very different kind of love story depicted on screen, and one that questions the emotional honesty of couples and their preparedness for marriage. On Chesil Beach wonders how a single moment can change and affect the rest of your life, how a rash decision alters who and what you became, extinguishing something that can never be replaced.
On Chesil Beach opens in the UK on the 18th May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1