On Chesil Beach Directed by Dominic Cooke
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emily Watson, Billy Howle
Published May 25, 2018Certain films with layered timelines can suggest that you're always at risk of getting lost in your memories during small tasks. You could be in the neighbourhood market, looking for the ingredients for a ragout and see a brand of tomato paste that was also in the pantry of a grandparent who never believed in you and the red wine on your list is the same you drank at a friend's funeral. Now, you're swimming in remembrances and who knows if that ragout will get made?
In On Chesil Beach, director Dominic Cooke's feature debut, the task at hand is a young couple consummating their marriage, with their collective and individual histories getting in the way. The success of the film depends on the importance of its present and how it connects to the past; throughout, the present feels more like an intrusion on their flashbacks, while those memories don't come together in a significant way.
The pair are newlyweds in 1962, spending their wedding night together in a hotel on the southern coast of England. Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) grew up in the countryside with a mother who, after an accident is, as he puts it, "the horrible phrase... brain damaged." He and his whole family struggle to cope. Nevertheless, he excels in post-secondary education, with the aspiration of writing history books.
On a trip to the city to celebrate, he meets Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan). On Chesil Beach, adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel, takes roughly that much longer to dig into her backstory, and when it does, the first few flashbacks are only showing her discussing Edward and their relationship. Eventually, we learn she's a classical violinist who recently got top grades like Edward. She commands the quartet, plays with confidence and precision, and has ambitions outside of the purely domestic.
In the past, the two seem so natural together; the present, not so much. The disparity is reinforced by strong cinematography from Steve McQueen's frequent director of photography Sean Bobbitt. His use of warm, natural light for scenes from the past does some of the heavy lifting in establishing Edward and Florence's relationship, with the cold, blue glow of the rocky Chesil Beach speaking to their alienation on their wedding night. The two speak so freely before they're married but, immediately after, they're awkward and bumbling, with Florence trying to steer them towards anything but sex. A flash of a memory suggests a reason, even if it's hardly hinted at beforehand and given only as a puzzle piece to her being "frigid" after.
The storytelling, nesting memories within memories, all sparking off one another, reflects a relatable mental experience, even if emotionally, they don't all connect here. In a string of moments, we follow Florence from that hotel room to her time with her quartet and working at a concert hall to her time as a young child, and we're pulled back out by a piece she's practiced playing through static on a radio in her childhood. Even if the editing is even keeled and the effort at bringing some filmmaking verve is appreciated, these moments wind up feeling disparate and the characters feeling emotionally stunted as presented here.