(Note: while there isn’t much plot summary here, I am assuming you are familiar with this film. There are what you would call “spoilers” here.)
ON CHESIL BEACH (2017), screenplay by Ian McEwan, directed by Dominic Cooke, and starring the fabulous Saoirse Ronan and newcomer Billy Howle, tells the story of how two young people from opposing backgrounds meet back in merry-ol’, Chuck Berry-era England. While at first they seem to be a destined match, since this is Ian McEwan territory, they are anything but that.
For acts one and two, the movie works like a play in its tight containment in a hotel room. Like all of McEwan’s work, this story is nuanced and character-driven, in a setting that both feels normal, but one can also sense, just on the periphery, an inevitable dark fate awaiting the two characters. McEwan is literal and diabolical, willing to be all the things that life is in his stories: his characters often live tragically, doomed to fail but hopefully also learning a lesson from the experience (in spite of the tremendous cost). Short-hand to McEwan (and probably any drama for that matter): happiness is a precursor to doom.
The story is structured like a memory play in which a pair of newlyweds recollect what led them to be across from one another at a formal table setting in a honeymoon hotel by the beach. Like much of McEwan’s work, the foibles of youth are explored in a Hemingwayesque way. Conversation peters out. Innuendo and quiet accusation undergirds words and actions. In this way it is searing to watch. Edward, the male, is from the country, Keroucian in nature, whose desire to experience beyond his insane mother’s house drives him to excel enough to be given the chance to rise in class. This drive leads him into the path of Florence, a driven young violinist, when they meet in school in London.
The intensity of the setting in the idyllic hotel room near the deserted stretch of beach draws us into their mental states. It is this couple’s first time alone together. Finally, they are free from any outside intrusion, which provides an organic way to novelistically pass into the many flashbacks that dominate this movie.
It is clear from the structure of the story that the stakes of the couple’s first moment of truly being allowed alone together are unreachably high. This arrangement could very likely prove to be their undoing. We see the weight of the expectations the newlyweds feel placed upon them as they suffer through the requirements of a consummation on the wedding day. The two young adults act as if the families were right outside the room waiting anxiously for the bloody sheet. In the case of this story, the present-day, bloody-sheet awaiters is peopled by two bizarre young hotel male staff, fulfilling the required oddness incumbent on any McEwan tale.
The strength of the narrative is in the depth of character. Ronan, in her second collaboration with McEwan since her debut in the highly-lauded film Atonement as a young, meddlesome child, comes full circle here as the resolute, clear-hearted Florence. Edward, played by Howle, is an equally devoted, dutiful son of a mother suffering from brain damage. On paper, these two seem perfect together, their environments leading them naturally into each other’s arms. The windy, desolate beach setting also cinematically places us in a raw, windy, emotional landscape, seeming to inspire the characters’ helpless fall into nostalgia by virtue of their surroundings.
What is not clear, narratively or organically, is why the flashback device. It feels like a stylistic choice more than anything else and seems more motivated by the author than the characters. Flashbacks so often break up the present-day action, it is as though the characters can’t get out of their own heads. It as if they are constantly asking, “How did I get here?” while for the first time having free reign over each other’s bodies.
A concussive effect may have in fact been what the director or writer or both were going for here: to keep the audience as off-center as the characters. The flashbacks force the audience into the role of a puzzle-solver. Rather than becoming involved in the characters’ struggles, we are more apt to become aloof and see these two characters as pawns to their own reveries. The sleight-of-hand of the narrative thereby becomes more pronounced and we realize that this honeymoon in this quiet hotel on a distant shore in fact WILL be drawn out and probably will not go according to plan. As the flashbacks show the various happy accidents and pitfalls leading these two characters together, it begins to feel inevitable that these same forces that brought them together will also have a hand in tearing them apart.
I have often felt with Ian McEwan’s work that it challenges emotional empathy at every step. His work is never maudlin, manipulative, or melodramatic. It always feels lived, if a shade (or a lot) pessimistic, again feeling close to Hemingway in its spareness and rawness of emotion. The clinical distance the filmmakers take by splitting the narrative between two characters and then dicing their path through the story into pieces prevents us from fully taking either character’s side or giving us the stable ground of one character’s point-of-view. The fragmented telling further muddies the audience’s ability to connect to the story.
The confusion the story’s execution creates of who the main character is and the flashbacks’ lack of organic coherence to the narrative have a distancing effect for the audience, again perhaps the goal. Why else do we go to the movies other than to feel? The tearful moments of the film, while we sympathize with what the characters are going through, we don’t really care. Their suffering has been rendered academic.
The resolution of the film, set in the characters’ future and involving ghastly age makeup, utterly falls flat. I can compare the end of this film to the end of Shine, in which David Helfgott finally achieves his goal of completing a concert before an audience, which he had spent the entire film pursuing. What Chesil Beach’s final scene achieves here, though, has considerably less impact because the male character’s goal wasn’t made clear from the beginning. We do not even know until this moment that he was in fact the main character all along.
Too many films and stories only find themselves by the end, without retrofitting the preceding story to best take advantage of this information, leaving a lot of detail and scenes that weren’t relevant to the conclusion. It seems hard to fathom that given the mechanics involved in the making of a film, that what it’s about would not be clear throughout the laborious process and only become more refined as a result. Yet it happens constantly because sending a message is such a subjective process even when multiple people are involved in crafting that message.
At any rate, what we have witnessed prior to the tearful finale comes across as an unedited, unexpurgated torrent of detail about two characters’ intertwining lives. Certainly, the messiness of life and its ramifications are of import, but the overall plotting and amount of memory at play here mostly make the film feel novelistic and that it wanted–really wanted–a first-person perspective for two different characters who thought and felt much throughout their very long engagement and very brief honeymoon.
In spite of the structure, luckily the characters ultimately are autonomous and their fates are decided by who they are as people (as mostly revealed through all those flashbacks). The narrative favors what these characters have been through, not what will please the audience or make the characters objectively more interesting. A story’s purpose in the end, though, comes down to the impact it has on the audience. It’s raison d’être is for moving the audience. This story at its heart, by drawing us into these two people’s lives, wants us—needs us—to care about them. Their fate should draw us in emotionally. Finally what works in prose form does not necessarily work on film, since films move us via a building of tension that the audience can feel from the beginning. When our attentions are split by an unclear main character, the emotional heft is lessened. We cannot cry for what we haven’t been allowed to experience.