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On Chesil Beach review - a heartbreaking portrayal of young love


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Verdict: A film for those who like to ugly cry in the cinema. 

It’s always a difficult decision when a book you adore comes to the big screen. But when that film boasts a cast that includes Saoirse Ronan and Anne-Marie Duff, you can usually guarantee it’s going to be a good one.

On Chesil Beach (2017) is an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novella of the same name. It follows the lives of newlyweds Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) as they navigate their first evening together.   

In typical romantic drama theme, ambitious and musically gifted Florence is from a privileged, well-respected family and is expected to achieve big things. Edward is what Florence’s mother describes as a ‘country bumpkin’. But that’s where the typical romantic drama ends.

On the surface, they appear to be like any other newlywed couple, young and desperately in love with each-other. It is clear from the very start that Edward is completely besotted with the intelligent, beautiful and self-assured Florence. On Chesil Beach flashes back to various points in both Florence and Edward’s early lives, showing their personal points of view for certain moments in their lives which turn out to be vital in helping them end up where they are today. Sound is a huge part of the underlying fabric of the film, with the subtle sound of waves crashing helping to transport you to Chesil Beach alongside Florence and Edward.

Juxtaposing the use of sound are the moments of true silence throughout the film. These long pauses with no sound, just longing glances between the two of them, leave you aching with awkwardness as you feel the pain of the couple, both terrified of hurting one another. 

The true plot of the story lays much deeper than a young couple struggling to connect on their wedding night. Although it’s never outrightly said, it’s assumed that Florence has had a quietly traumatic childhood with her father... and this is insinuated heartbreakingly through the medium of classical music. 

Saoirse Ronan brings Florence to life in a way that only she could, her ability to show such deep emotion through just a glint in her eyes, echoes back to her role as Briony Tallis in Atonement (2007) (also written by McEwan). Billy Howle is mesmerising as Edward, bringing a true sense of clumsiness and uncertainty to his character. He never quite feels like he is good enough for Florence, and this makes it impossible not to empathise with him, despite the other more unlikeable qualities of his character.

Supporting roles from Anne-Marie Duff and Emily Watson as Florence and Edward’s mothers are also worthy of mention. Duff plays Edward’s mother who, after experiencing a tragic accident, is left brain damaged. Her role adds a lightness and innocence to a film that can sometimes be quite heavy on the heart. 

Somewhat surprisingly, the film ventures away from the books nonchalant ending, instead, choosing to break the hearts of every single person watching. A flash forward to 2007 sees Florence and Edward seeing each other again for the first time in almost half a century. They catch each-other's eyes from afar and share a look of both pain and sadness, and it really is one of the most truly moving moments of cinema I’ve seen in a long time.

A delicate portrayal of young love, complete with a brilliant 1960’s soundtrack and stunning cinematography, On Chesil Beach is well worth a watch. Just make sure you bring some tissues.

On Chesil Beach is in cinemas from May 18th, distributed by Lionsgate.

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