BFI LFF 2017 – On Chesil Beach (2017)

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In 2007, Saoirse Ronan made her cinematic debut in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan novel Atonement. Her performance was acclaimed worldwide and received Best Supporting Actress nominations from BAFTA, the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. Ten years later, she is now taking on a starring role in an adaptation of another Ian McEwan novel.

Marking the directorial debut of Dominic Cooke, On Chesil Beach revolves around newly married couple Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Ronan). Celebrating their honeymoon, they fondly reminisce about their relationship, but hidden emotions begin to cause conflict between them.

The premise of On Chesil Beach is quintessentially English – set by the Dorset seashore, here are two young, inexperienced lovers who are full of nerves.  Taking his story to the big screen, screenwriter McEwan retains the emotions of each character and allows the plot to flow seamlessly between the past and present, while gradually uncovering the couple’s individual traits and secrets through timely flashbacks.

Guided through Cooke’s structured yet picturesque direction, the flashbacks themselves reflect a more relaxed atmosphere between the Florence and Edward, despite their different backgrounds and aspirations – haughty Florence wants to focus on her music, while working-class Edward toils at the local cricket club. Yet, despite it all being sweetness and politeness, these blatant differences subtlely hint that they either don’t know enough about each other to get married – or there is doubt about the future of their relationship.

While Cooke’s cleverly arranged narrative shows a relaxed atmosphere amid the almost comical discomfort of the day, the supposedly innocent love scene between the couple ends up being incredibly awkward and humiliating. From Edward’s fumbling eagerness to Florence’s reluctance, the encounter encompasses the awkwardness of the ‘first time’ and is probably the most uncomfortable love scene in cinema.

In terms of casting, both Ronan and Howle deliver strong performances of their respective complex characters. While retaining a sense of innocence reminiscent of her breakthrough performance in Atonement, Ronan exudes a quiet confidence in her portrayal of Florence.  Previously appearing in The Sense of an Ending and Dunkirk, Howle’s Edward is the more emotional of the two as his agony bookends the second act before driving the final act with quiet contemplation and painful reflection.

Overall, On Chesil Beach features strong performances from Ronan and Howle, whose characters’ romance serves as the antithesis of a conventional love story.

Director: Dominic Cooke, Ian McEwan (scr.)
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Anne-Marie Duff, Emily Watson, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough
Runtime: 110 minutes
Country: UK

Film Rating: ★★★☆☆

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