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Wednesday, June 27, 2018


A sensitive, nuanced adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel about a young couple’s battle with sex. (Review by Patrick Compton – 9/10)

“Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(Which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

Up till then there’d only been
A sort of bargaining
A wrangle for a ring,
A shame that started at sixteen
And spread to everything.”

The first two verses of Philip Larkin’s poem, Annus Mirabilis, gives you a flavour of the atmosphere that pervades this fine film, adapted by Ian McEwan from his own 2007 novella.

Today, in our intensely sexualised Western world, with beautiful, semi-naked bodies selling us products on every commercial wall and screen – as well as a myriad therapists to help us out if there’s still a problem – it’s hard to imagine that sex could be a fearful prospect for a young woman on the cusp of adulthood.

The date is, significantly, 1962, as we are introduced to the two main protagonists. McEwan’s opening sentence in his 166-page novella states the situation starkly: “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.”

The two young people, Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) were married earlier that day and they have just checked in to their hotel overlooking Chesil Beach on the Dorset coast.

The film is structured just like the book, with the increasingly stressful events of the wedding night punctuated by flashbacks to their earlier lives, comprising their interests, life with their respective families and of course how they met. Indeed, there are even flashbacks within flashbacks, but it is a measure of the clarity of Dominic Cooke’s direction in this, his feature film debut, that the essential storyline is never for one moment confused.

One of the challenges Cooke faced was to get the balance between the “present” events and the flashbacks right. Too many flashbacks would stifle the movie’s momentum, too few would reduce the richness of the characterisation and the nuanced details of the world they lived in. In my view, he and McEwan got the balance just about right.

The cast lend crucial weight to the overall vision. Ronan is particularly fine as the talented classical violinist who falls in love with a man not quite from her social class. In many ways Edward – who loves rock ‘n roll rather than classical music – opens the door to a wider, more sympathetic and engaging world for Florence who is clearly oppressed by her frigid family life (with Emily Watson and particularly Samuel West offering powerful cameos as her thoroughly unpleasant parents).

Edward’s family is painted in altogether warmer colours, although his mother (superbly played by Ann-Marie Duff) is psychologically disturbed due to a severe head injury.

Neither the book nor the film offers simplistic explanations for Florence’s instinctive disgust/fear of sex, rather they outline a stiff-upper-lip English world in which it is difficult to talk about the subject or approach it with care, patience and sensitivity.

One almost feels that if Edward and Florence had simply had a cuddle on that fateful night and slept on their issues, they could have eventually worked things out. Therein lies the tragedy of their story.

In the interests of cinematic presentation, McEwan deviates from time to time from his novella, but never more effectively than in the final sequence where the tragic wastefulness of that dreadful night in Dorset hits home powerfully.

On Chesil Beach is showing at Gateway Nouveau. – Patrick Compton