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Review: On Chesil Beach

May 25, 2018

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Based on Ian McEwan’s bestselling novella, which the author himself adapted into a screenplay, and beautifully brought to the screen by first time director Dominic Cooke, On Chesil Beach is a classic romantic drama that engages simply because of the strength of its characters and storytelling.

The year is 1962, and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) are a young couple who have just gotten married and are spending the first night of their honeymoon at a guest house by the English seaside.  Edward has natural hopes for what the night will entail, but when things move into more sexual territory, Florence grows increasingly uncomfortable with exploring this aspect of their relationship.

As flashbacks reveal more of Florence and Edward’s differing backstories, we come to understand both what drew them together and the chasm that is slowly forming between them.  Florence is an accomplished violinist who comes from a well-off but somewhat distant family, raised by professional, upper-class parents (Samuel West and Emily Watson).  This is a very different life from Edward’s more rural upbringing with a working class father (Adrian Scarborough), and a free-spirited artist mother (Anne-Marie Duff) who needs constant supervision after suffering a brain injury.

The film is compelling in the moments when it is a chamber piece between the two central characters, as it slowly becomes evident that there is an imbalance between what they both want from the relationship, leaving a void that might never be able to be filled.  When Florence’s deep reluctance to expressions of sexuality comes to the forefront, the story takes some genuinely interesting turns in the last act.  At this point, On Chesil Beach reveals itself to be a fascinating look at intimacy within marriage, that challenges traditional perceptions of repressed sexuality and what constitutes love.  This leads to a standout and brilliantly acted scene between the young couple that unfolds on the beach.

Both Billy Howle and Saorise Ronan deliver quietly remarkable performances, playing off each other with chemistry and simmering tension, making us feel every glance, every carefully mannered conversation and finally every argument that comes between them.  The film builds towards a real tearjerker of an epilogue, culminating in a beautifully composed and quietly heartbreaking final shot that lingers long afterwards.

On Chesil Beach is now playing in limited release at Cineplex Cinemas Varsity in Toronto.

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