Wednesday, 30 May 2018

On Chesil Beach

Awkward sex scenes are a staple of cinema. Whether intentional or not they turn up on screen fairly regularly. A few horrible examples spring to mind. That horrible Leonard Cohen scored scene in Watchmen, the gobble gobble moment from Gigli, that sweaty monstrosity in Munich that's even more scarring than all the rest of the film's onscreen violence and then there's the virginity losing scenes that turn up in all teen comedies. All moments that make you cringe into a ball. But moments you can laugh at too. Moments you can poke fun at. On Chesil Beach contains a similar moment. But here it's a scene that will make you die a little inside.

It's 1962. Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew are a newly married couple. They are on their honeymoon in a hotel beside Chesil Beach, a famous shingle beach in Dorset . They are nervous and very tentative around each other. Florence and Edward live in an age where sex is rarely if ever talked about and if it is it's mentioned in very hushed tones behind closed doors. As a result things don't go to plan and repressed past moments come to the fore.

Like the pivotal moment this film is messy. It's a very simple story, boy and girl meet, fall in love and then shit goes sideways but it's flashback structure gives it a fierce disjointed feel and a saggy middle section threatens to kill you with boredom. A spectacularly good lead performance from Saoirse Ronan goes a long way towards salvaging proceedings though. It's 11 years since she blasted onto out screens in Atonement (also written by Ian McEwan) and somehow she just keeps getting better and better. She's become an actress you feel an instant empathy for even when the film around her isn't as good as she is. Billy Howle is great as Edward too. His sadness and frustration is palpable at times, threatening to pour off the screen.

It's a story about the importance of communication and how lack of it can make anything crumble. How nothing good ever comes from repression. How pride can be utterly disastrous. Big weighty themes. It should be an important meaty watch but it's layout just sucks the life out of it all. At moments you just want to shake the characters to get them to talk to each other. It's quite frustrating. In fairness the final quarter of the film is really good, when the film changes pace but at that stage it's just too late. It's slightly annoying too. If this part of the film can move like this why not the rest of the film. I know this is a reflection of how the source material was written though.

In theory it's an awfully sad story. It's set in 1962. One year later the Beatles hit big and young people started letting loose. Big societal changes took place and attitudes started loosening up. Florence and Edward missed out. A year later and their story could have been very different. Some people are just born in the wrong time. 

There's a lot to like here including a couple of fine supporting turns from Anne Marie Duff and Emily Watson. It's a story I wanted to engage with but it's energy sapping structure stops it from happening. Like the titular Chesil Beach it's nice looking but ultimately cold and awkward to get on with.

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