Dir.: Dominic Cooke | Cast: Saoirise Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Samuel West, Anne-Marie Duffy, Adrian Scarborough | UK 2017 | 110′
According to debut film director Dominic Cooke, and Ewan McEwan who wrote the script for this melancholy love story, based on his novella, England is still a country of emotional repression and class prejudice, and nothing has changed since Brief Encounter.
ON CHESIL BEACH explores this romantic disillusion through a poignant love affair between Florence Ponting, (an outstanding Saoirise Ronan), and historian Edward Mayhew (Howle) who meet and fall for each other. Ponting’s father Geoffrey (West) is a wealthy industrialist married to Violet (Watson) an Oxford lecturer. Mayhew’s mother Marjorie (Duff) is brain-damaged after an accident at a railway station: she has lost all inhibitions, making her a brilliant painter, but she often runs around the house naked and Edward’s primary school teacher father (Scarborough) is out of his depth which reflects in Edward’s emotional distance. Florence copes well with Marjorie, and is ‘in love’ with being in love with Edward but can’t cope with a physical relationship. Their wedding night is a hotel in Dorset, is fraught with sexual difficulty, and the pair end up arguing, Edward, accusing her of frigidity. She offers him unconditional love, even agreeing that he could have lovers, he goes off in a strop and leaves her for good, forfeiting a life’s happiness that unravel in epilogues set in 1975 and 2007.
On Chesil Beach could be sub-titled love in a cold climate. Women in the Sixties were still “le deuxieme sexe”, expected to be their husband’s appendages. Sex was rarely discussed in polite homes: do-it-yourself handbooks – as read by Florence and her sister – were common. There sex is described “as the woman being the doorway for the man”. Edward, who is also a virgin, is unable to put his feelings into words,expecting her to be his little dormouse – even though, as the leader of an aspiring string-quartet, she has obvious qualities he lacks. But Edward is painted as a man of principle; when walking with a Jewish friend, who is abused by a passer-by, Edward corners the aggressor. Florence too, mentions anti-Semitism in her family, wishing that her father would stop his tirades against Jews. DoP Sean Bobbitt (Queen of Katwe) conjures up an England of delicate beauty in soft colours, very much in contrast with the emotional turmoil unfolding. Cooke directs with great sensibility and the supporting cast, particularly Duffy as Marjorie and Watson as the classist ice-maiden, are very convincing. But Saoirise Ronan claims this utterly forlorn and heartbroken story of diminution for herself. AS
SCREENING DURING BFI LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2017