Movie Review: On Chesil Beach

How do you adapt a book like On Chesil Beach? A book that revolves around the wedding night of a young couple in the early sixties, On Chesil Beach is stuck in a single room over the course of just a few hours and one aborted attempt at sex. Honestly, when I heard the film was coming out, I was initially excited, and then concerned because, well, how do you pull this one off?

Well, first off, you get the author to write the screenplay: Ian McEwan adapts his own novella here, and it really shows. On Chesil Beach is a deeply internal book, but when you have someone on hand who understands what’s significant about that internalised storytelling and can guide the movie in the right direction to explain it. I’ve read the novella and so had all the people I saw this movie with, so I can’t speak to how it comes across if you’re coming at the movie completely fresh, but McEwan, for the most part, has the nerve to hold back and show instead of tell, aside from a couple of moments of self-indulgence.

And the biggest book in that regard to On Chesil Beach are it’s two leads, Saoirse Ronan (fresh off a killer turn in Lady Bird, and still not having much luck with losing her virginity) and Billy Howle. The meat of this movie takes place in a single room, across the six-hour course of a marriage that falls apart before consummation, and that’s a sharp spotlight to shine on the two of them. But these are too exceptionally delicate performances, teasing out the nuances in the shift of a foot in a shoe, a hand on the chest – as that single room shifts from the promise of a honeymoon into the oppressive funerial bad dream of a marriage collapsing in on itself, it’s the two of them that guide us through that devastation, that resentment, that fury, that guilt.

And then there’s the direction, courtesy of first-time director Dominic Cooke: On Chesil Beach is a detail-orientated story, and Cooke isn’t afraid to linger on those details but doesn’t miss the big picture either. From those shivering close-ups on fingers and toes to the final, gruelling long shot of the couple giving up on each other, Cooke sidesteps falling into common Filmmaking 101 tropes that so many new directors subscribe to, and manages to produce something that feels one part horror film, one part love story, with no gaps in between.

On Chesil Beach is a thematically rich movie, one that rewards you for thinking a little deeper and looking a little closer: stories about sex and sexuality are so difficult to get right without having them turn into excuses to show some tits and ass, but On Chesil Beach is almost chaste for a film that shows a legful of spunk. What matters is the feeling. The raw, spiralling emotion of virginity, sex, and marriage clash together with class issues and familial expectation, and what comes out of it is this devastating one-act play is a surprisingly relevant meditation on sex, consent, abuse, and desire.

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