I’m surprised to realise I haven’t read On Chesil Beach. I’ve read most of Ian McEwan’s ouvre, but not this slim novella. Maybe I’ve just balked at paying a standard paperback price for so few pages. Whatever. When friends suggest we meet up and make a day of it – a film in the afternoon; a meal in the evening – I’m more than happy to give this one a go.
It’s a decent movie, adapted by the author. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle give excellent central performances as Florence and Edward, the clever young couple whose love for one another is evident, but who cannot negotiate the weight of expectation on their wedding night. They are wounded and humiliated by their failure to consummate their marriage; their naivety and innocence is heartbreaking to see. Too angry, too proud, too fragile, they don’t give themselves a chance, and their relationship is over before it’s even really begun. Their excruciating attempts to initiate sex are depicted here in agonising detail, their awkwardness and vulnerability cleverly conveyed.
We learn their history through flashbacks, which is quite effective in slowing down the pace and emphasising the couple’s interminable embarrassment. They meet when Edward blunders into an Oxford student CND meeting, bursting with the news that he’s gained a first in his degree. With no one to tell, he turns to a stranger – and Florence, who has just graduated with the same grade, is happy to help him celebrate. They come from very different backgrounds: she from the status-obsessed upper middle-classes, with an academic mother (Emily Watson) and an angrily competitive father (Samuel West); he from a more bohemian country life – his mild-mannered father (Adrian Scarborough) is head teacher of the village school; his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) is an artist, ‘brain-damaged’ after an accident. No matter; Florence and Edward fall in love. And, after their disastrous wedding night, they fall apart.
Much has been made of McEwan’s ingenuity in condensing the rest of the couple’s lives to a kind of footnote, thus highlighting the significance of their failure on that fateful day. But – for me at least – this is the film’s failing. It feels like a careful set-up followed by a sketchy summary, and I am disappointed by the broad strokes of the final third.
Still, I’m glad I’ve seen it. It’s a sad tale of an experience that is hopefully far less commonplace, now that the silly notion of ‘saving oneself’ for a wedding night is a thing of the distant past.