This is a review of “On Chesil Beach” by Ian McEwan
I watched this film without having read the book on which it is based, although the fact it was adapted for the screen by the author suggests that the film is true to what he aimed to convey in the novella.
It starts and ends on the stony Dorset spit of Chesil Beach, where Tom and Florence choose to spend their honeymoon in 1962. On the evening after the wedding, the tensions between them are obvious, in marked contrast to the intense friendship, easy exchange of ideas and affection they display in the many flashbacks which show the course of their relationship from their first meeting when Tom gatecrashes a CND meeting, desperate to share with someone the fact he has just graduated with a First. The differences between them are also obvious from the outset. Tom is impulsive, scruffy, has trouble controlling his feelings, yet is clearly thoughtful and compassionate. His childhood has been blighted by the terrible accident suffered by his artist mother, which has left her unable to care for herself, let alone her children, and prone to erratic, uninhibited behaviour. Florence comes from a privileged middle-class background. Whereas Tom’s father is head of a rural primary school, hers runs a successful engineering business, while her dominating and insensitive, snobbish mother is a colleague of Iris Murdoch. Yet there are hints of possible concealed abuse. Always beautifully dressed and fastidious, despite her apparently sheltered life, Florence shows a steely determination in her ambition for the string quintet to which she belongs to perform at the Wigmore Hall to widespread acclaim.
Although these differences might be expected to prove the cause of a painful realisation of their incompatibility, in fact the problem lies elsewhere. The year was 1962, before the explosion of the “Swinging Sixties” and ready availability of the pill, when a bright, highly educated girl with no brothers could remain painfully ignorant of sex, while her male partner, although not so uptight, might well prove completely unable to handle the situation. This is a very poignant scenario for demonstrating how a failure to act at a critical moment, or an ill-judged reaction may change the course of one’s life for ever, and even close friends or relatives may feel unable to intervene.
Since the original novella was criticised by some as being too short to justify consideration for the Booker Prize, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ian McEwan felt compelled to add two scenes at the end. I agree with those who felt that these seem a clumsy and superfluous over-explanation of what might have motivated the two main characters, perhaps in an attempt to compensate for problem of conveying on screen the thoughts and impressions more subtly revealed in the written word. Although the film has been very well received, I found some of the scenes too abrupt and disconnected, many of the dialogues quite stilted, and was unconvinced by the sudden dramatic change in the relationship between Tom and Florence when it came to their wedding night.
The film has some beautiful photography, the two main characters are well-acted, there are moments of humour amid the anguish, like the ghastly hotel dinner served to the newly weds in their room by suggestively obsequious waiters, but watching “On Chesil Beach” fully engaged me. On reflection, my sense of disappointment at the end lifted somewhat, and I began to see interesting angles to the film, like the visual metaphor of the long spit on which one half of the couple could walk away to follow a different path in life, while the other stood rooted fatefully to the spot.