When I received the brochure for the Cunard British Film Festival 2017, one title jumped at me: On Chesil Beach. I remember buying the book when it was released in 2007, from Borders in Rundle Mall, Adelaide. Those were the days when Borders was still alive. The book is an exercise in appreciating melancholy and nostalgia, tackling past episodes in our lives when we say, “I wish …”, “I should’ve …”, or “I could’ve …“. It’s a story that stays with you, long after you close the cover.
Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) is a graduate History student who meets with Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) in a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament meeting in Oxford. Florence is a violinist in a string quartet, who comes from a well-off family. Despite their differences, Edward and Florence love each other a lot; Florence’s family tolerate Edward, and Florence is well-loved by Edward’s siblings and parents. After they got married, they spend their first evening in a hotel on Chesil Beach. A mishap on their first night creates a snowball of emotions and accusations, where Florence’s past trauma collides with Edward’s hurt ego. The anger ends up reverberates for years beyond that one evening on Chesil Beach in 1962.
I approach the movie gingerly, as I know what happens in the book and I am curious on how it translates into the cinema. The director, Dominic Cooke, in his debut as a feature film director – creates a really stylish and atmospheric movie. Beautifully framed shots, great angles, and extreme close-ups that wonderfully convey the awkward dynamics between Edward and Florence. Both actors – Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan – are excellent in their portrayal of Edward and Florence. There’s no real division of role – of being a protagonist or an antagonist – in relationship sometimes. You really can’t blame one or the other without fully understanding where they come from in the first place. These emotions and subtleties are brought to the surface so skillfully by Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan (who we also see in Atonement – another favourite film of mine based on Ian McEwan’s book). You can feel the hurt and love when we see Edward’s eyes brimming with tears, and yet you can also empathise with Florence’s fear as she approaches her first night with Edward.
If you approach this movie wanting a quick succession of events, actions, and resolutions – you may be disappointed by the pacing of the movie. However, if you know the context of the original book by Ian McEwan and immerse yourself in the wonderful frames, the atmosphere of the movie, and follow the story of Edward and Florence as it slowly unravels, chances are – you will love this movie as much as I do. It’s La La Land for grown-ups, sans dancing nor choreography – the British way.