ON CHESIL BEACH
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director: Dominic Cooke
Screenwriter: Ian McEwan from his novel
Cast: Saoirse Ronana, Billy Howie, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson, Samuel West
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 4/12/18
Opens: May 18, 2018
The soundtrack is filled with the beautiful music of Schubert and others while at the same time finds a place for Little Richard’s assertive (and in this case ironic) “I’m ready, ready ready, I’m ready ready ready to rock and roll.” “On Chesil Beach,” adapted from Ian McEwan’s novel by the screenwriter, finds two young people who are anything but ready to rock and roll. The opening sentence if Ian McEwan’s novel goes: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this their wedding night and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” That pretty much sums up the theme.
If you were born after 1970 you might find that sentence incredible. The sexual revolution, which began with the invention of the birth control pill and was furthered by resistance against authority during the Vietnam War, really was a upending of the old conventions. Both women and men who started their adult lives in 1962, the year this film begins, might well be virgins. Some were considered technical virgins, meaning that they “everything but.” However Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) were not even that. In fact shortly before their wedding Florence is seen reading a sex manual that must have been written in the forties, looked on by her kid sister Ruth (Bebe Cave), who appears more excited about the subject than Florence. For his part, Edward seems untutored by his parents Lionel Mayhew (Adrian Scarborough) and Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff), his father being an elementary school teacher in a profession looked down upon by Florence’s haute-bourgeois mother Violet (Emily Watson) and to a lesser extent the father Geoffrey Ponting (Samuel West).
Dominic Cooke, who directs and who is at the helm of a miniseries of Shakespeare histories, projects the genteel nature of life in a small English town, where Edward may be considered more of a hayseed than is the love of his life despite his scholarly affinity for history. Florence is involved leading a chamber music string group whose music is given ample and most welcome time on screen by the director.
Social classes notwithstanding, the meeting of these two college graduates at a function is the foundation of love at first sight, the two unable to resist each other, their eventual marriage a natural climax to their affection. This is why it is nothing short of tragic (despite some comic undertones) that the two in their honeymoon suite on Chesil Beach, are nervous: the young man’s leg shaking nervously under the table, his partner’s hand maintaining a tight grip on her dress. Their failure at sex on their wedding night could have been treated as a slip, nothing more, but the couple lack experience even in the ways of solving disputes.
There is an argument here for having sex before marriage which, strange as it seems today when couples live together for months and years and may never even tie the knot. In fact co-habitation should be as required by law just as are the requirements of a blood test for a marriage license.
Though this is essentially a two-hander with hardly a scene that does not include either principal actor, side issues are explored. One involves a terrible accident on a train station when Edward’s mother Marjorie is hit by a door and brain damaged. On the tennis court, Florence’s dad shows his infantile side, ready to break his racket when he fails to shut out his future son-in-law in what should have been a friendly match.
The two principals are made for each other; that is, until the wedding night changes them forever. At twenty-four Saoirse Ronan, soon to play the title role in “Mary, Queen of Scots,” was generously awarded for her performance last year as Lady Bird. Less known in the U.S., Edward Howle had a smaller role in last year’s “The Sense of an Ending,” here fitting in quite well as an equal to Ms. Ronan.
While some critics may show displeasure at the way the film ends, I see nothing wrong with the use of sentiment on the screen, even of the Hallmark variety.
Unrated. 110 minutes. © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B