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'On Chesil Beach' A Better Novel Than Film

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Bleecker Street
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You wouldn’t wish a wedding night like this one on the person you most despise in all the world. Florence (Saoirse Ronin) and Edward (Billy Howle) are beyond naive and inexperienced. They walk around each other stiffly; each eyes the other like a stranger. It’s 1962. They’re honeymooning in a small hotel with a view of the sea – and Chesil Beach, of course, in Dorset on the south coast of England.

Two stiff waiters in white jackets roll in a table for dinner. Florence and Edward don’t know where to sit, how to eat with two English waiters standing beside them or how to get them out of the room. Later, Edward can’t figure out when or how to take off his shoes; the zipper on the back of her dress stymies him. Florence has read a book on sex, but when the moment comes, it’s like a giraffe trying to follow the directions to build a model airplane. It must be comic, but something in the film says do not go in that direction.

As the newlywed’s fumble, small touches or gestures send each of them back into memory. Her judgmental parents worry that Edward might be working class. His mother was brain damaged by a freak accident at a train station. Separately, they think about how they met. They weren’t always this way.

They’ve been affectionate and fun-loving. They live near the town of Oxford and go boating on the river. They run to each other filled with desire, and Edward spins with Florence in his arms. They hug and smooch, but the sexual revolution seems not to have come their way. They’re both joyous with music – she plays the violin and she’s dedicated to her string quartet; he loves late ‘50s and early ‘60s rhythm and blues. And for much of the picture, their musical tastes give the film a sweet lilt.

But that Chesil Beach lets you know there are problems. It’s mostly stones; the couple wobble when they walk. The beach may sit beside the sea, but you’re not going to want to spread out a blanket and beach umbrella.

On Chesil Beach is finally about time and regret. The pasts of Florence and Edward intrude on their presents, and so do their futures. It’s as if they’re stuck in a complex of times and can’t find their way out. It’s not a question of being hounded by the past; it’s more that they can’t gain the perspective they need to find a way out of a terrible bind that clamps down on them.

It’s a complex story. Ian McKuen wrote the script from his own novel – but I don’t think he gets much help from a relatively inexperienced director, Dominic Cooke. Cooke makes obvious shots of hands or feet to show tension, and cuts from the hotel room to memories tend to feel arbitrary and out of rhythm with the film itself.

On Chesil Beach is also about the complexity of loss. What’s on screen though, looks flat and unimaginative and oversimplified. It’s a dutiful dull-witted film, made from a story that’s driven by desperation and yearning. I have no idea what transpired to reshape McEwan’s novel onto a movie screen, but that’s a tricky process. Movies can’t look inside to a character’s thoughts – what’s inside has come outside to where it can be seen – and On Chesil Beach hasn’t found what that looks like. Novels of substance don’t automatically turn into good films. The picture looks like illustration, not a movie with a life of its own.

A change takes place. Two people with rich lives, much in love and almost gooey with each other, suddenly turn to stone, like strangers. Why does that happen.? What strings got pulled? The movie offers no clues in its glimpses of the past, and all the talk in the world between Florence and Edward can’t help.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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