On Chesil Beach boasts a sublime musical score.
On Chesil Beach boasts a sublime musical score.

MOVIE REVIEW: Sad story of young newlyweds

THAT first night as a married couple is supposed to be special. Or more likely, you're so exhausted the two of you collapse into a heap on the bed, snoring within minutes.

What that first night is not "supposed" to be is two virginal newlyweds, hand-in-hand, walking toward the imposing bed draped in crimson linen with the kind of apprehension with which condemned prisoners approach the execution chamber.

The year is 1962 and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) are at a seaside hotel on their wedding night. After sitting through an awkward dinner, watched over by the hotel's clumsy clerks who diluted the wine with water after a spill, Florence and Edward know what's expected of them. It hangs in the air.

They're both nervous and it shows in their body language. The sit and stand upright. The conversation is stilted. Florence takes off her shoes and stockings in uncomfortable movements. Ed fumbles with the zip of her aquamarine dress.

These scenes are intercut with flashbacks to their courtship, revealing Florence and Edward's different family backgrounds and the tenderness, though never passion, between them when there isn't the heavy significance of consummation before them.

Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle will reunite in The Seagull, out later this year.
Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle will reunite in The Seagull, out later this year.

Adapted by Ian McEwan from his own 2007 Booker Prize-nominated novella, On Chesil Beach is a profoundly emotional movie that's lost some of the poetry and sadness in the transfer from page to screen. It's a story that relies so heavily on its characters' interiority but the film struggles to capture its vividness.

With so much of film's pivotal moments taking place in the claustrophobic confines of that hotel room, the producers tapped Dominic Cooke as director in his feature debut. Cooke is a renowned theatre director and he brings those skills to those scenes, which requires a deft hand that can stage and block those chunks of dialogue.

Most of McEwan's books have been adapted for the screen over the years, with varying degrees of success - Joe Wright's Atonement being the epitome.

On Chesil Beach isn't Atonement, but it is fine. Thrice-Oscar nominated Ronan is great as always, as is her scene partner Howle - the two will reunite in an upcoming film adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull.

Tender but never passionate
Tender but never passionate

What On Chesil Beach loses in emotional nuance it gains with its sublime score. Composer Dan Jones worked with Royal Philharmonic Orchestra artist-in-residence Esther Yoo, a 24-year-old Korean American, and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales to create an evocative and soulful soundtrack, layered with Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven.

It's not just that Florence is a violinist and she's never more confident and assured than when she has an instrument in hand. The movement of the music mirrors the characters' ups and downs, leading to that poignant climax on the pebble beach.

While On Chesil Beach doesn't hit all the right notes, it does enough to be a graceful period drama about the unfulfilled promises we make to each other and ourselves.

Rating: ★★★

On Chesil Beach is in cinemas now.

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