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On Chesil Beach starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle: My Take on the Movie [review] #book2movie #bookvsmovie

Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle star in On Chesil Beach

Sometimes—okay, often—the books we love just don’t make very good movies. As lovers of books, every time we walk into a theater to watch a screen adaptation we hold our breath. Please let it be as good as the book, we murmur. Please let it do the book justice. 

On Chesil Beach had much to live up to. I love the novel by Ian McEwan. Its melancholy ache, the infinite sadness of this honeymoon couple gone awry, their connection lost, speaks deeply to me at my core. The kind of novel it’s so hard to get right. I’m thinking of Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down another brilliant book that lost its way in translation.

On Chesil Beach isn’t that. On Chesil Beach is a big, beautiful, mesmerizing success. Not big in a splashy way, but big in that it has realized its potential. It’s glorious. Of course, the movie has the benefit of being scripted by McEwan who knows the heart of the story at his core. So much so that while you could say he changed the ending, the truth is he didn’t so much as change it, as he extended it. His added scenes brought the story of Florence and Edward, not only to a new place but to their rightful conclusion.

While Florence (Saoirse Ronan) falls in love with Edward (Billy Howle) with every fiber of her being, immersing herself in his world, learning to love what he loves—the birds, the trees, even his taste in music, so diametrically opposed to her own—the classical music she loves means everything to her. Edward learns to see the beauty in the classical music that is Florence’s lifeblood. They light up around each other, love each other.

But somewhere along the line, Florence has been damaged. Whether by an actual incident with her father or an awareness and fear of what he represents, Florence has an aversion to sexual touch. Handholding with Edward is fine, more than fine, as they go on hikes and have picnics by the river, they are happy and affectionate. 

On the other hand, Edward’s hands going up her skirt to touch her thighs, slipping beneath her clothing to touch her breasts, is not. She is simply so afraid, she can’t give herself over to him, and to the pleasures, she would likely come to know in time.

The marriage bed scene shows Florence, knowing it’s time to submit, gripping the skirt of her dress tightly to each side. She is all but holding her knees together.

I wonder how younger people will see this scene? Will they understand Florence’s resistance at all? Will they get it that there was a time when sex was a very big deal? That while plenty of women didn’t, plenty of women waited for marriage? 

The aftermath of the honeymoon is where the tears came for me in the movie, just as they did in the book. 

On Chesil Beach is a story of If Only’s ...
If only the couple had met a little later in life when both were more experienced
If only Florence hadn’t been so afraid of sex
If only Edward was able to see through her fear and give her space
If only they could have been more patient and persistent with each other
If only ...

Instead, they are left to go their separate ways, live their separate lives. The portrayal of those two lives, and the final scene—not unlike that final scene in La La Land where Sebastian and Mia see each other years later at a musical venue, and the depth of their feelings, all the regrets, all the understanding is contained in a moment—tore me in two. 
In addition to McEwan’s perfect script, a solid supporting cast that includes Emily Watson as Florence’s mother, Samuel West as her father and a sublime performance by AnneMarie Duff as Edward’s brain-addled mother, the score by Dan Jones is tantamount to the film’s success, since Florence is a gifted violinist. Her parts were actually played by the accomplished musician Esther Yoo, you can learn more about that process here

On Chesil Beach costumes designed by Dan Jones at the Landmark theater in LA (via Instagram)

Directed by Dominic Cooke (The Hollow Crown) with production design by Suzie Davis—likely dictating the shades of blue visible in the costumes designed by Keith Maddon—his work can currently be seen in Patrick Melrose starring Benedict Cumberbatch—On Chesil Beach is a poignant, painful film will put Saoirse Ronan back in the Oscar conversation next year. She may just pull Billy Howle along with her.

Connecting to Joy’s British Isles Friday