Messing up McEwan: why the film of On Chesil Beach falls flat

Filmmakers love Ian McEwan for his dramatic set-pieces – but ungainly flashbacks and ageing make-up ruin this adaptation.

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Back in the late 1970s, someone signed a form without checking the small-print, with the result that every last Ian McEwan novel must now be made into a vaguely unsatisfying middlebrow film or TV series. A recent BBC version of The Child in Time was preceded last autumn at the Toronto film festival by two adaptations written by McEwan himself: The Children Act and On Chesil Beach, the first of his own books that he has brought to the screen since The Innocent 25 years ago. The attraction of his work to film-makers is not mysterious. Whereas Martin Amis’s muscularity resides predominantly in charged language that can sound gauche in the mouths of actors (hence, perhaps, so few Amis movies and such poor ones), McEwan excels at the set-piece, the idea translated into incident. The murder and dismemberment in The Innocent, the ballooning accident in Enduring Love, the interception of the lovers’ note in Atonement – these would seduce any director.

On Chesil Beach hinges also on a clinching moment, though here the explosion in question, though cataclysmic in the long run, is minor and intimate. It is 1962, the year before sexual intercourse began, and a young couple are taking dinner in a Dorset hotel room on their wedding day. Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) is a graduate historian, Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) a member of an amateur string quartet.

Served by a pair of contemptuous young waiters, they pick at the melon-with-glacé-cherry and the leathery roast beef and try to put out of their minds the approaching consummation that will deprive them of their innocence. The vegetation in the hotel grounds described so threateningly on the page is gone; the air of sexual terror represented by those “swollen stalks” with “dark, thick-veined leaves” is embodied now by the bed, a ripe scarlet square suggesting an altar of blood on which a virgin or two will be sacrificed.

Flashbacks reveal the particular circumstances that have produced such unworldly 22-year-olds. Edward is from a lower-middle-class family whose energies have been devoted to the care of his mother (Anne-Marie Duff), who has brain damage. Florence is the product of an upper-middle-class clan: a haughty mother (Emily Watson) and a volatile, competitive father (Samuel West) who would rather forfeit a limb than a point at tennis. Florence is clenched. She accepts Edward’s proposal but dreads his advances. Surrounded by other couples at a screening of A Taste of Honey, they are the only ones with their eyes on the screen.

Inadequacies and anxieties, combined with what McEwan in the book calls the “social encumbrance” of youth, conspire to create a neurotic impasse that leaves the pair unable to analyse or express their fears. A reckoning arrives on Chesil Beach, the extended slash of shingle which strands them geographically, just as they are caught between the repressiveness of their parents and the freedoms on the horizon.

It is risky to dress a character accused of frigidity in a series of blues ranging from icy to eggshell, but Ronan’s guarded warmth works in Florence’s favour. Her performance may be the only element that represents an enrichment of a novel which has in all other respects been coarsened.

Take those waiters, so wary in what is a short book (“They were nervous too”). Now they sneer openly in a scene that is as miserably overcooked as the beef. Before they even reach the room, they have knocked over the newlyweds’ bottle of red – an accidental spillage to foreshadow the more disastrous one to come – and topped it up with water. Edward tastes the wine approvingly, and is rewarded later with their mocking laughter. That’s mean, but not as mean as the people who put the scene there in the first place: McEwan, who wrote it, and Dominic Cooke, a theatre director making his uncertain film debut.

The integration of past and present, with stray thoughts interrupting the wedding night, needs a Nicolas Roeg-style dexterity rather than clumps of explanatory flashback shoehorned into the script. The movie suffers the same problem as the film version of David Nicholls’s novel One Day, where information conveyed weightlessly through indirect interior monologue acquires an ungainliness once dramatised.

It’s disappointing that Cooke, who fused two contrasting eras so expertly in his recent National Theatre production of Follies, should come unstuck here most of all. The obvious, though more formally daring, solution would be to cast different actors as Edward and Florence for the later parts of the film. Certainly it is asking too much of Ronan and Howle, both in their twenties, to play pensioners. Making them do so from beneath such unconvincing ageing make-up is tantamount to cruelty.

Self-sabotagingly tasteful and fatally polite; so unwilling to take risks that the comforts of convention become preferable to any potentially fulfilling acts of  boldness. That describes the lives of Edward and Florence, but also On Chesil Beach itself – coming too soon to a cinema near you.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war