I can remember reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement like it was yesterday, even though it was really 2005 or 2006. I was living in my first solo apartment in Indianapolis, and I was sitting in bed devouring the thing, enthralled with McEwan’s evocative writing. I can remember reading the twist revealed at the end of the book (I won’t spoil it here!), then turning the page to continue on only to turn the page back in order to make sure I’d really read it right. And then I started crying like I’ve never cried over a book before or since.
So my anticipation for the film version was quite high, and I was first in line to see it when it came out in 2007. Though it took some liberties with the details, overall the adaptation is spot on and remains a personal favorite. That film solidified my love for Joe Wright behind the camera, and introduced me (and the world) to a promising young actress from Ireland, Saoirse Ronan.
Now, Ronan returns to an Ian McEwan work in On Chesil Beach, based on his novella published the same year the film version of Atonement was released and directed by Dominic Cooke. It’s set in 1962 England, where Ronan, now grown up as Florence, is a new bride on her wedding night with Edward (Billy Howle, Dunkirk). It’s apparent quite quickly that these two are not only from very different worlds—hers posh and mannered, his working class—but neither is quite prepared for the consummation ahead of them.
They’re spending the night at an inn on the shore (the beach of the title), and we join them over dinner served in their room. Both barely twenty, they play at adulting here, with their best table manners on display, wine poured by the servers hovering nearby and the stilted conversation of a first date, not a wedding night.
Dinner concluded, the young newlyweds make their way towards the bed at the other end of the suite. Though both are relatively clueless about what’s in store (or how to get there), they begin a bit of fumbling around each other in that general direction. Edward has the eagerness of a puppy with a new toy; Florence has the terrified look of a soldier going into war.
Not only are we in an era where pre-marital sex is unheard of, but the topic of sex in general isn’t one for polite company. So these two virgins haven’t had any introduction into marital relations, and it shows.
The majority of the film revolves around this most anticipated act of the evening, though through flashbacks, we get a glimpse into the couple’s courtship and their family lives before the wedding. She’s a talented musician with a bright future ahead of her in a string quartet, full of dreams of playing on the town’s biggest stage for a rapturous audience. He’s the brainy eldest son in a family that lives in the country, his mother in need of constant care following a tragic head injury that left her in a delayed, unbalanced state.
McEwan’s books (I’ve read several since Atonement) are sweeping, stunning works of literature, and adapting these thoughtful, deep stories to the screen presents a unique challenge. So much of what’s on the page is the internal, a tall order to make visual. Here, McEwan has adapted his own work, and for about the first three quarters of the film, he’s done a fine job of it. As we peek into Edward and Florence’s lives, there are a few strong reveals that go to more fully form these frightened young things, granting a shape to their characters that serves us well.
After a tense and scary moment in their hotel room, where the consummating doesn’t quite go as planned, Florence rushes outside for fresh air, walking as far down the shore as she can. Edward finds her, of course, and here on the windswept pebble beach, the two are forced to confront the reality of their mismatch, whether their union can even survive this first night together.
Ronan and Howle carry the film quite strongly. She is a force of her generation, and she does not miss a beat here, like she hasn’t missed a beat since arriving in Atonement. And Howle, who also appears in The Seagull this month, rises to meet her. Their courtship is lovely and innocent, the chemistry strong. And when the evening goes awry on the beach, each expertly balances their vulnerability with sheer frustration and anger.
Unfortunately, where a novel can span generations and eras in a matter of pages, for a film to make similar leaps is a harder sell. And in that last fourth of On Chesil Beach, McEwan’s script sends us years into the future for coda after coda, following up with the two characters decades after their wedding night. Where the reveals leading up to the wedding night made them each richer, more fully-formed characters, the ones following only cloy for sentimentality where it’s not needed.
Despite strong performances and a promising premise, On Chesil Beach lacks a directorial vision to elevate it to a breathtaking work of art, and suffers from a script that, while it might have worked in a book, doesn’t know where to stop for its own good on screen. It won’t go down as a highlight of Ronan’s resume, but that’s no fault of hers.