LFF 2017: Saoirse Ronan stars in an underwhelming adaptation of Ian McEwan's novella
Overwrought and underwhelming, On Chesil Beach is a cold and calculating affair that constantly threatens to collapse under its own self-importance. Set on the cusp of the sexual revolution of the 1960s, it's a film that's as dramatically restrained and emotionally inaccessible as the period it depicts.
Adapted by Ian McEwan from his own Booker-nominated novella, the narrative bounces around in time as it tells the story of newlyweds Eddie (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan). As the pair honeymoon in a Dorset hotel in the early 1960s, their tumultuous wedding night is peppered with flashbacks (and flashbacks within flashbacks) that reveal their vastly different home lives and idyllic courtship.
Theirs is a world shaped by a series of events that have far-reaching consequences, namely the violent accident that renders Eddie's mother (a thankless role for Anne-Marie Duff) brain-damaged and in need of a lifetime of care, while the film hints at something traumatic in Florence's childhood, which explains her attitude towards sex (a horribly underdeveloped plot strand that either needed more attention, or to be excised entirely). Filmed with a heavy hand by theatre director Dominic Cooke, making his feature debut, the structure makes the story feel episodic – a series of staccato vignettes rather than cohesive moments of a shared life.
The narrative's dual themes of intimacy and repression are underscored by beautiful yet aloof cinematography from Sean Bobbitt, which captures the couple's twee, bucolic courtship in warm tones and then frames them against the stormy coastal sky as their relationship disintegrates. The score, which blends soaring classic strings with the likes of Chuck Berry and T. Rex, is similarly on the nose.
Indeed, for a film about the first flushes of love and the impulses that drive us, On Chesil Beach feels so awkwardly self-conscious, so carefully constructed, that it's difficult to engage with either its characters or its message.
Screening on Sun 8, Tue 10 and Sun 15 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2017. General release from Fri 18 May.