How awkward can first love be on a wedding day?
Ian McEwan’s screen adaptation of his own novel On Chesil Beach, shows it can be plenty awkward when newlyweds Florence Ponting, played by Saoirse Ronan and Edward Mayhew, played by Billy Howle, settle into a dapper hotel to consummate a relationship neither truly understands.
It’s England in 1962 and humble history student Edward Mayhew has fallen in love with talented young musician Florence Ponting, whose family brandishes a more affluent lifestyle than his own.
The obvious social and relationship challenges seeping from the mores of class and upbringing aren’t anything we haven’t seen before. However Forence’s parents, played beautifully by Samuel West and Emily Watson, provide the dissonance without feeling trite.
First-time film director Dominic Cooke’s deft storytelling crafts the foundation of their budding relationship through flashbacks, each scene a subtle brick layered quietly as their relationship grows. Until you begin to realize the world he’s built around Edward and Florence, has trapped them both.
Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird, Atonement) is well, Saoirse Ronan. The words ‘up-and-coming’ no longer apply and the Irish-American actor has not only arrived, she’s long left many behind as one of the best young actors on the screen. To say she steals scenes as the newlywed’s relationship unfurls is a disservice. She is the scene, every one of them and that’s no disrespect to Howle (Dunkirk), whose performance holds it’s own walking a fine dramatic line without being overly earnest.
McEwan’s (Atonement, The Good Son) screenplay reads quietly, the writing favouring muted hues, over the intensity of bold primary colours. While some may cry sacrilege for watching the film before reading the novel or say the book has a lot to live up to before reading it, but I say that anyway.
On Chesil Beach begins with a conversation between two newlyweds strolling along a beautiful rocky shoreline. “This is the emotional punch,” Edward Mayhew says to Florence only moments in.
He may as well have been talking about the film.