On Chesil Beach is a fine example of the limits of literary adaptions

by James Robins / 25 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - On Chesil Beach movie review

Novelist Ian McEwan adapts his own work On Chesil Beach for screen with mixed results.

In a hotel by the Dorset seaside in 1962, a slow-motion horror-show is unfolding.

Young Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) have just been married. If the vows were happy, you wouldn’t know it. There’s a chill of dread in the room. The couple speak to each other with crushing politeness. They endure a dinner of pathetic beef and soggy vegetables with waiters hanging insolently over their shoulders. Now they have to get on with what no one has ever taught them to do: sex.

The act itself takes the entirety of On Chesil Beach to get through, excruciating scenes interlaced with flashbacks to earlier, happier times. They meet at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament meeting at Oxford, leaping over what sometimes seems like an impenetrable class barrier; she an ambitious violinist, her mother (Emily Watson) sporting what can only be described as proto-Thatcher hairdo; he an enthusiastic bohemian, a fan of rock’n’roll, his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) addled by a brain injury. Their romance is swift and adorable, done in the established style of the prim-and-proper British literary hardback.

All those light memories keep tumbling back into that hotel room, back to that act, to be undone: probing tongues, tripped-over shoes, limp humping. Could there be anything more uncomfortable than when Edward mutters, “Just lie still”? There’s a kind of courage in Ronan and Howle’s willingness to portray this encounter with as much awkward squirminess as possible.

Unlike Enduring Love and Atonement, On Chesil Beach sees novelist Ian McEwan adapting his own writing for the first time, and he at least attempts to translate the impotent rage of that surprisingly short book, examining the stifled, rigid social codes of pre-sexual-revolution Britain, and just how debilitating Florence and Edward’s naive consummation is. A single moment can poison an entire life.

Or rather, a single moment can poison an otherwise fine literary adaptation. In order to reach for that feeling of deep regret, director Dominic Cooke’s film version has to rustle about in the make-up box and slather its actors in layers of old-age prosthetics. When Florence and Edward appear in their dotage for what is supposed to be the crescendo of weepiness, they look remarkably silly. All the film has worked to achieve is lost in an instant. Supreme tragedy comes off as cringy.

On Chesil Beach is a perfect, if disappointing, example of the kinds of things literature can achieve that film can’t.

IN CINEMAS AUGUST 30

★★★

Video: Transmission Films

This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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