A slim Ian McEwan novella, ‘On Chesil Beach’ stews with repressed emotion and sexual anxiety. The seismic social changes of the early ’60s course through its pages like an electric current. As its two young, unprepared newlyweds – Florence and Edward – suffer through a disastrous honeymoon night, your heart swells in sorrow and sympathy for them. On the screen, though, this self-adaptation – McEwan’s first screenwriting credit since ‘The Innocent’ in 1993 – loses some of that melancholy power. It’s not a bad movie, by any means, but it strains to turn a seriously introspective story into something cinematic.
It’s 1962 and the cusp of the sexual revolution, but Middle England is still using a sex manual to navigate the sticky business between the sheets. Musical prodigy Florence (the ever-ace Saoirse Ronan, all brittle tenderness) approaches the consummation of her marriage like it’s an evening with the Babadook. Billy Howle’s history grad Edward, barely burying a sense of inferiority beneath his boyishness, adds a volcanic layer of male entitlement that slowly builds after a fantastically awkward dinner in their hotel suite. Instead of a romantic evening of wireless and chill, it all goes wrong. Ronan and Howle summon the edgy anti-chemistry of two people who suddenly realise they’ve made a terrible mistake.
Less successful are the efforts to add layers of back story via a series of deeply conventional flashbacks. By majoring on the pair’s courtship, Edward’s brain-damaged mum (Anne-Marie Duff) and Florence’s cruel dad (Samuel West) it saps the claustrophobic mood without adding much insight into the couple’s psychology. And a hint of an abusive relationship in the past is left hanging, like a key piece of evidence overlooked in a court case. Like much here, it works better on the page than the screen.