Tuesday, 19 June 2018

On Chesil Beach

I had read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach to Kathy in April, just a few days before we saw the trailer for the film, and we had much enjoyed it, so we could hardly miss an opportunity to watch the film version on the big screen. That big screen was certainly helpful in allowing us to enjoy the excellent cinematography (it was actually filmed on Chesil Beach), but watching Dominic Cooke’s film so soon after reading the novel wasn’t ideal: Despite the fact that Ian McEwan wrote the screenplay himself, the film failed to do justice to his novel.

On Chesil Beach uses the backdrop of a wedding night in 1962 to tell the story of the bride and groom through flashbacks. Florence Ponting (played by Saoirse Ronan) is a brilliant young musician from an upper class family who dreams of leading a String Quartet on the world stage. Florence knows little about sex and is terrified about what she does know. Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) also doesn’t know much about sex, but otherwise is avery different person. Coming from a working class home and living with a mother whose brain was damaged in an accident, Edward has few ambitions other than getting away from home.

The unique flashback structure (in which most of the film involves flashbacks) worked well in the novel, filling in the story of the two nervous newlyweds in a way that fit nicely into the short excursions back to the wedding night. Unfortunately, I did not find that this structure worked well in the film. On the contrary, I found it awkward, with no clear flow from past to present or vice versa, making for slow going at times. I also found the new extended ending to be awkwardly contrived. Where I was hoping for some new scenes to add to my appreciation of the novel, I found the new scenes did the opposite. 

Which is not to say that the writing was inferior. Many scenes in the film, as in the novel, featured thoughtful and well-crafted dialogue. And the acting was outstanding throughout. With such acting and writing, I had hoped for a more engaging film, but that was not the case for me. Perhaps this is partly the fault of having a rookie director.

In the end, Kathy and I enjoyed watching On Chesil Beach, with no regrets for having seen it, but we came away disappointed because of how much more we had enjoyed the novel. A solid ***. My mug is up. 

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