While the unravelling of a marriage is compelling viewing, the clumsy jumping through time and lack of ambiguity in the storytelling makes On Chesil Beach forgettable cinema
On Chesil Beach (15) **
The Breadwinner (12A) ****
Edie (12A) **
Adapted by Ian McEwan from his 2007 novella of the same name, On Chesil Beach picks over the wreckage of a doomed marriage, jumping back and forth in time to locate the cause and effect of its rapid dissolution, while simultaneously using the coital calamity of the couple’s wedding night as a sort of car-crash-in-slow-motion narrative through-line. Sadly, like the newly formalised relationship at its core, this approach doesn’t always make for the happiest of unions, with theatre veteran Dominic Cooke (making his cinematic debut) demonstrating that a good stage director doesn’t necessarily make a good screen director.
Which isn’t to say there aren’t things to admire about the film, which is set largely in a pre-Beatles Britain, when being young, to paraphrase McEwan’s book, was a social encumbrance rather than a licence to run wild. Saoirse Ronan — who got her big break in another McEwan adaptation, Atonement, just over a decade ago — is certainly good as Florence, a promising classical musician from a well-to-do-family, whose mild student radicalism finds a safe vessel for experimentation in aspiring writer Edward. He’s played by Billy Howle, who is much better in this than he was in a similar role in last year’s disappointing Julian Barnes adaptation, The Sense of an Ending. Here he brings a touch of Tom Courtenay’s Billy Liar to this put-upon middle-class history graduate, a young man whose humbler origins and love of Chuck Berry count for exoticism in a stuffy world of cricket whites and silver service dining.
Both actors (and Cooke) are at their best during the scenes depicting the prolonged, agonising come-down of Florence and Edward’s nuptials. The opening sequence is especially good: the uncertainty of the commitment these virginal 20-somethings have just entered into is already sketched on their faces — and the awkward formalities and expectations of adulthood and marriage soon conspire to rupture whatever sexual harmony they might have expected to enjoy. The book is justly famous for featuring one of the most catastrophically inept sex scenes in contemporary literature and the film, to its credit, isn’t coy about dramatising this. Building towards it the way disaster movies do earthquakes, conversational fissures give way to emotional cracks and physical malfunctions that lay waste to a romance built on shakier foundations than either of the protagonists could possibly have comprehended, even a few hours earlier.
It’s too bad the film jumps around the timeline so clumsily. Its over-reliance on flashbacks to fill in the origins of Florence and Edward’s relationship feels very clunky and cliché-ridden. Familial trauma and abuse are at the root of their sexual problems, but Cooke and McEwan rarely let us read between the lines: everything is spelled out; there’s no ambiguity, which undermines some of Ronan’s and Howle’s good work, especially the confusion-filled postmortem of their botched attempt to consummate their marriage. Even more damaging is the terribly treacly final act, which fast-forwards through the next 40-odd years in their lives in the dreaded name of closure. With their faces vulcanised by distracting prosthetics, they’re forced to do that bobble-headed zombie acting thing that all young performers end up doing when asked to play senior citizens.
It’s a shame because the unravelling of the marriage is compelling enough in its own right. It leaves you wishing McEwan had been more ruthless with his own work and Cooke less in awe of his source material’s literary pedigree. Had they been bolder and cleverer with the narrative, finding a way to tell it in the moment, as Luca Guadagnino did with Call Me By Your Name, Andrew Haigh did with 45 Years and Richard Linklater managed with the second and third instalments of his Before… trilogy, this could have been another poignant exploration of the complex, long-lasting ways youthful naivety can shape and scar us when it comes to matters of the heart. Instead it’s another middling piece of prestige cinema, fine up to a point, but likely to be forgotten the moment it leaves cinemas.
The Breadwinner marks the third Oscar-nominated film in a row for Irish animation studio Cartoon Saloon. Putting a slightly more hi-tech sheen on the gorgeous, storybook house-style of previous hits The Book of Kells and Song of the Sea, this one moves away from tales rooted in Irish mythology to tell a story about a young Afghan girl forced to dress as a boy in order to earn a crust for her family in Taliban-controlled Kabul. Kells co-director Norah Twomey — adapting Deborah Ellis’s bestselling children’s novel of the same name — does a wonderful job of making accessible an emotionally complex family film about resilience in the face of terror without deviating from the no-nonsense perspective of its 11-year-old heroine.
The Scottish-set Edie also features a no-nonsense heroine in the octogenarian form of Sheila Hancock. She takes the lead as a recently widowed woman determined to make up for lost time by travelling to the Highlands to climb Suilven, a life-long goal thwarted for much of her life by her domineering husband’s traditional views of a woman’s place in the world. Unfortunately, while Hancock is good in the role, and Kevin Guthrie is quite charming as the young guide she employs to help her conquer the mountain, the film’s faux crowd-pleasing tone is condescending in ways its eponymous heroine surely wouldn’t tolerate. ■