On Chesil Beach is a fascinating film. A prickly, difficult adaptation of Ian McEwan's novella that explores marriage and sex in a way that feels refreshingly honest, and tragically English. The film doesn't always satisfy but is an engaging, complicated work with the kind of lead performance that an acting talent gives when they are at the peak of their profession.
The narrative unspools from the wedding night of
Intimate in its narrative and forensic in its detail, On Chesil Beach often highlights its director's theatre background; the strength of Dominic Cooke's film is the acting. The supporting cast are particularly strong, with great work from the likes of Emily Watson, Samuel West, Anne-Marie Duff and Adrian Scarborough. Their performances prevent the film's somewhat-clunky flashbacks from diminishing from its building tension. At the film's centre is a pair of very good performance from Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan. Howle seems to embody toxic masculinity, at times effortlessly charming, and at others consumed by so much repressed rage and embarrassment that you fear it will explode and consume him. It is a merit of his skill that he, for the most part, manages to retain the audience's sympathy. But the film's ace card is Ronan. She follows powerful performances in
On Chesil Beach looks gorgeously bleak, thanks to stellar work from Sean Bobbitt (Steve McQueen's go-to cinematographer), with the aforementioned locale having a sweeping, all-consuming quality to it. It might be one of the worst adverts for the location as a holiday destination though. Yet at times you feel the adapted material could be better served either in a longer TV form, giving the narrative room to breathe, or stripped down to focus in on the hotel room in a stage adaptation. As an audience you want more and less from this film.
This is a far from perfect film but it is one whose exploration of sex feels refreshingly honest, discussed in a manner that mainstream films often shy away from. Relationships are messy, imperfect and prone to collapse at any given moment, and this reality courses through this adaptation. It make it a compelling, intimate portrait with a final third that gives the film a powerful emotional kick.