On Chesil Beach
Dominic Moore, director
Ian McEwen, script based on his novel
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Florence Ponting), Billy Howle (Edward Mayhew), Emily Watson (Violet Ponting), Anne-Marie Duff (Marjorie Mayhew), Samuel West (Geoffrey Ponting)
It’s been a long time since young British brides closed their eyes and thought of England when consummating a marriage. We’re returned to that terrible time of sexual and emotional repression in On Chesil Beach, a film that is set in 1962, just before Beatlemania and the rise of the Pill changed things forever in that part of the world. Though it seems easy to dismiss a story with a subject that seems incredibly old to us now, one has to trust the teller, not the tale. In this case, the teller is Ian McEwen, one of the finest talents in British and world literature today—and that makes all the difference.
Adapting his own novel, McEwen offers us a compassionate look at two young people, who seem right for each other, which turns what happens to them into a tragedy. The terrific Irish actor Saoirse Ronan, who first rose to fame as a monstrously lying pre-teen in McEwen’s Atonement, is cast perfectly as Florence, a naïve upper class young woman, whose ambition in life is to play violin in a string quartet. When she meets Edward (Billy Howle), an attractive middle class boy, who is an odd mixture of shy and bold, the two find themselves falling in love.
The story of their courtship is told in flashbacks, a favourite McEwen device, on their wedding night. We see Florence take charge of Edward’s family, helping his brain-addled mother Marjorie (a wonderful Anne-Marie Duff), to cope with her life while inspiring his twin sisters and charming his father (who says to Edward “Marry that girl.”) Florence’s family comes off less well, particularly her ruthless father, who may have abused her as a young adolescent.
As the narrative keeps on returning to the wedding night, one sees Edward and Florence’s awkwardness with each other and their roles as husband and wife move from comic to tragic. To put it bluntly, the marriage isn’t consummated and the couple breaks up.
But that’s not the end of the story; we watch how events turn out for each of them over the next 40 years. One notable treat throughout the film is that Florence does become a successful member of a string quartet. On Chesil Beach is filled with great music: the Razumovsky by Beethoven; several Mozart quartets and his Quintet in D Major; Schubert’s Death and the Maiden as well as pieces by Haydn and Bach. For Edward, the music veers to early rock’n’roll including, naturally, Chuck Berry’s Roll Over Beethoven.
Indeed, the film ends triumphantly with Florence’s quartet playing a fine farewell concert, which Edward secretly attends. Should they have stayed together? They’ll never know nor will we. But one thing is certain: On Chesil Beach is well worth seeing.
Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus
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