Flawed but moving tale of a bygone sexual era.


As you might notice from my lack of recent posts, the day job is getting in a way a bit at the moment.  But one film I wanted to catch was this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel.  What’s both an advantage and a disadvantage of catching a film late is that you can’t help avoid absorbing some of the reviews of others: Kevin Maher of the Times gave this a rather sniffy two stars; Amy from “Oh That Film Blog” was much more measured (an excellent review: man, that girl can write!). Last night, I actually ended up enjoying the film much more than I was expecting to.

Chesil Beach, Dorset. The shingle barrier beach is a natural formation forming part of the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. Source: Jim Hancock.

Set against Dorset’s spectacular shingle bank of Chesil Beach (which is a bitch to walk along!) the story, set primarily in 1962, joins two newly-weds Florence (Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn“, “Lady Bird“) and Edward (Billy Howle, “Dunkirk“) about to embark on the sexual adventure of their consummation at a seaside hotel. The timing of the film is critical:  1962 really marked the watershed between the staid conservatism and goody-two-shoes-ness of the 50’s and the sexual liberation of the swinging sixties. Sex before marriage was frowned upon.  The problem for Florence and Edward is that sex after marriage is looking pretty unlikely too! For the inexperienced couple have more hang-ups about sex than there are pebbles on the beach.

Lie back and think of England. Florence in contemplative mood. (Source: BBC Films).

The lead-up to their union is squirm-inducing to watch:  a silent silver-service meal in their room; incompetent fumbling with zippers; shoes that refuse to come off. To prolong the agony for the viewer, we work through flashbacks of their first meeting at Oxford University and their dysfunctional family lives:  for Florence a bullying father and mother (Samuel West and Emily Watson) and for Edward a loving but stressed father (TV regular, Adrian Scarborough) due to a mentally impaired mother (Anne-Marie Duff, “Suffragette“, “Before I Go To Sleep“).

Hey big spender. Florists are over-rated anyway. (Source: BBC Films).

As Ian McEwan is known to do (as per the end of “Atonement” for example), there are a couple of clever “Oh My God” twists in the tale: one merely hinted at in flashback; another involving a record-buying child that is also unresolved but begs a massive question. 

The first half of the film is undoubtedly better than the last:  while the screenplay is going for the “if only” twist of films like “Sliding Doors” and “La La Land“, the film over-stretches with some dodgy make-up where alternative actors would have been a far better choice. The ending still had the power to move me though.

Life’s a beach. Florence and Edward close but far away. (Source: BBC Films).

Saoirse Ronan is magnificent:  I don’t think I’ve seen the young Irish-American in a film I didn’t enjoy.  Here she is back with a McEwan adaptation again and bleeds discomfort with every line of her face. Her desperate longing to talk to someone – such as the kindly probing vicar – is constantly counteracted by her shame and embarassment. Howle also holds his own well (no pun intended) but when up against the acting tour de force of Ronan he is always going to appear in second place.  

Spectacular cinematography from Sean Bobbitt. (Source: BBC Films).

A brave performance comes from Anne-Marie Duff who shines as the mentally wayward mother. The flashback where we see how she came to be that way is wholly predicatable but still manages to shock.  And Duff is part of a strong ensemble cast who all do their bit.

Another star of the show for me is the photography by Sean Bobbitt (“12 Years a Slave“) which portrays the windswept Dorset beach beautifully but manages to get the frame close and claustrophobic when it needs to be.  Wide panoramas with characters barely on the left and right of the frame will play havoc with DVD ratios on TV, but work superbly on the big screen. 

Directed by stage-director Dominic Cooke, in his movie-directing debut, this is a brave story to try to move from page to screen and while it is not without faults it is a ball-achingly sad tale that moved me. Recommended if you enjoyed the similarly sad tale of “Atonement”.

Fad Rating: FFFf.