Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are young, beautiful and in love. They’ve just married and taken a honeymoon on Chesil Beach in Dorset, where their marriage, and lives, slowly begin to unfold.
As prestige literary adaptations go, On Chesil Beach has arrived with little fanfare. The May release day suggests no great confidence that it can be an awards contender, despite the huge critical and commercial success of Atonement, the last Ian McEwan novel to be adapted for the screen. And you can see why: it’s a funny, boxy little picture, taking place over the course of an eventful evening whilst, guided by constant analepsis, a larger story gradually emerges around it.
The newlyweds in this deeply unromantic romance are played with slight nervousness by Ronan, fresh off Oscar nominated performances in Ladybird and Brooklyn, and Howle, who has largely had bit parts in TV and film so far, though is heading for stardom. The two will play lovers falling out of love again later this year in The Seagull (which won’t end much better for Howle’s Konstantin) and hopefully they will be more convincing there.
The problem is that the delivery is so precise, so mannered – designed presumably to reflect the nervous awkwardness of their time in the honeymoon suite – that it becomes a distraction. Howle particularly seems much more relaxed in the scenes set in London and Oxford, where there is less internal struggle to convey, and supporting performances by Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson and Samuel West all help lift the film. But there is something disappointing, given how consistently excellent her work has been over the last few years, not to get a more complex performance from Ronan, whose Florence is the enigma at the heart of the film.
The explanation, and blame, can largely be found in the creative team. Dominic Cooke, by trade a theatre director, is at the helm, working from McEwan’s screenplay adaptation of his own novel. It’s a cheap shot, but it’s hard not to wonder if they ought to have introduced a film professional at some point in the process. Like so many directors transitioning from stage to screen, Cooke can’t quite wrap his head around the mechanics of a film’s movement, and, instead, the action is grounded in a very static, stagey dinner sequence in the hotel room, whilst a series of inelegant cuts plunge us into flashbacks. Even when, towards the end, the action moves onto the eponymous beach, the composition still favours an approach that situates the headland as a tightly bordered stage. Nothing is allowed to feel natural, even as the artifice of their relationship unravels in front of them.
For all it might have wanted to be the new Atonement, it ends up closer to last year’s adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, which also starred Howle. Expressing interiority is always something of a puzzle for cinema, not helped when the source material is a landmark of modern literary interiority. But where The Sense of an Ending cast Howle as a young Jim Broadbent in order to ease the potentially jarring time jumps, On Chesil Beach joins the pantheon of movies with horrendous ageing prosthetics instead.
The movie’s emotional climax will be completely subsumed by the horrified incredulity audiences feel at the sight of the young stars dripping in latex and make-up, mincing around as though they have never seen an old person walk. It is staggeringly misjudged, especially in an era where CGI is offering opportunities to make this sort of trick less uncanny. On the other hand, if you wanted to find out what Ladybird looks like forty years after graduating NYU, here’s your chance.
“A great book about bad sex” was the famous review of the novel. Unfortunately, all that’s left from that is the bad sex. Cooke’s adaptation is not without solid work from actors and designers, who have fashioned a handsome period piece. But the story is not one that ought to allow for much time spent considering the rolled up cuffs of a protagonist’s Oxford shirts, or the vintage three-speed bicycles. Put simply, the adaptation doesn’t work and the movie is instantly forgettable.