Written (the screenplay and the original novel) by: Ian McEwan
Directed by: Dominic Cooke
When a film is “so good that its bad” that generally means it was written to be appreciated in one way (eg as a serious drama) and ends up appreciated in another (as a comedy). I would not consider On Chesil Beach to be amongst the ranks of “Bad Movies,” however, it’s certainly got a small dose of their character. The film opens to newlyweds Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) walking on a beach before returning to a hotel where they dine together. The set up and the dialogue is cartoonishly posh. Perhaps its just because I’m used to thinking of Ronan as a “young” actor, but there’s something about her character’s wedding night that feels fake : it is as if we are watching a parody of proper British couple eating. Having not read the novel on which the film is based, I was left in those moments wondering: “am I about to watch a piece of absurd comedy?”
My hypothesis about the film being a comedy was able to linger a few scenes longer. For example, I was struck by a flashback scene which features a character abruptly being hit by a train. Something about the delivery was off. It resembled the slapstick violence of Amelie rather than the tragic moment that it was supposed to be.
Soon, however, the film’s seriousness became apparent as the plot went back and forth between present and future: Florence and Edward’s joyous courtship, and their troubled wedding night. This contrast at times felt interesting, however, the darker side of the film’s plot felt poorly paced. It is revealed that Florence has a tragic secret. The nature of this secret quickly becomes obvious, however, making the build up to it feel underwhelming.
On Chesil Beach thus starts which tonal weirdness, and has a predictable middle. As for its ending: it’s rather sentimental. It’s the kind of thing you’ll like if you’re particularly invested in the story, but will dismiss as predictable if you are not particularly in love with the characters. That said, I have recently written about the danger of using heuristics (words like “predictable,” sentimental” or “subtle”) in criticizing films.Yes, On Chesil Beach has all of those flaws, but the film is an example of how the sum of parts can be greater than the whole.
Sure, on its own, “the end” of On Chesil Beach is too sentimental to feel interesting, yet when viewed with “the middle” in mind, “the end” feels like a stroke of genius. The middle of the film seems to imply the story will be about the revelation of the dark secret, yet that dark secret ultimately takes a back seat to another problem. This other problem, we learn, is what the story was, in a way, about the whole time.
It’s hard to say what the film is ultimately about with out giving too much away, so I’ll say this much. The film sets us up to believe it is a story with a “bad guy.” When the sort of plot-twist happens, however, the film becomes about a different kind of story, one in which there isn’t a bad character, but a good character made bad by the rigidity of social convention. This theme in turn enriches the film’s awkward beginning. The poshness displayed in the early dinner seen can no longer be written off as awkward, unintentional comedy. Instead it comes to fit in within the film’s theme that people can undermine their own best interests, and perhaps principles, because they are actors rigidly playing roles as written in the script of social convention.
On Chesil Beach does not feel like a subtle film, but upon reflection, you may find there’s more to it than immediately meets the eye. It is a film that speaks to how alien and unpleasant the social politics of “the past” can feel. And by default, it also begs the question of how social convention continues to turn people against each other to this day.