On Chesil Beach
Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff
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…crackerjack script, and performances from the two leads which amount to a master class in great acting.
Adapted from his own novella by Ian McEwan, this is the subtle but cumulatively powerful story of a relationship between two young people in the (mostly rural) England of 1962. The time and place could not be more significant: a rigid and repressed society perched on the edge of liberation. Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) has recently graduated with a first in History; Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) has done the same in Music. She’s passionate about the classical stuff, he likes Chuck Berry and the blues, and while Edward is from the country Florence is something of an urban toff, albeit with socialist and pacifist leanings. But this is much, much more than a study in contrasts and archetypes: at its best it has the claustrophobic personal intimacy of an Ingmar Bergman tragedy.
There are memorable and affecting scenes here, both in the film’s ‘present day’ and in its frequent flashbacks. But Mum should be the word about anything specific there, particularly as some of the impact derives from unexpectedness.
On Chesil Beach is not without flaws, its main weakness being an ending that feels too contrived and pat by half. But that’s a minor flaw when set against the crackerjack script, and performances from the two leads which amount to a master class in great acting. The abiding effect is of discomfort and disquiet, so that in the more excruciatingly awkward scenes we feel more like intruders than mere viewers. The story may be set 56 years ago, but – given the galvanic changes there have been in sexual mores and class interaction – it might as well be a thousand.