Saoirse Ronan arrived in Joe Wright’s 2007 adaptation of Ian McEwan’s heartbreaking novel Atonement. Now, she returns a decade later to a McEwan work in On Chesil Beach, adapted for the screen by him and directed by Dominic Cooke. It’s set in 1962 England, where Florence (Ronan), 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 what’s ahead of them.
They’re spending the big night at an inn on the shore (the beach of the title), and we join them over dinner served in their room. Both barely 20, they play at adulting here, 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 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, it makes for a tall order to make it all 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 serve to more fully form these frightened young things, granting some much-needed shape to their characters.
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 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 that fateful night made them each richer, more fully realized 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.