On Chesil Beach ★★★

Ian McEwan adapts his own 2007 novel for the screen for director Dominic Cooke, helmer of 2016’s edition of The Hollow Crown, itself a relatively disappointing follow up to the 2012 original. Once again, Cooke’s adaptation is here probably somewhat less successful than a previous Saoirse Ronan starring McEwan adaptation proved to be back in…2007.

That’s not to say it’s bad, that’s far from the case, there is a total assuredness about the production from a craft point of view, everything on screen looks and feels real, and there is a general slickness to the technical aspects as well, the editing, the sound. It all feels like the work of a very mature and confident hand.

It’s an interesting exploration of a young couple at a certain time, in a world very unlike the one we live in now, but as much as it works as that sort of portrait of a more buttoned up society, what makes it more interesting is the way in which the movie branches out from that central concept to effectively explore ideas that spring up as offshoots from it, and the way in which so much of this applies in a usually sort of indirect way to the world we live in now - the dangers of a lack of education, the damage done by an inability to communicate between families, between couples, etc.

On a simpler level it really is a pretty super effective portrait of the flawed, fallible, naivety that comes with youthful romance. That’s thanks in large part to the work of its two leads, the by now ever more indisputably great Saoirse Ronan, expert in pulling a meagre ineffectual tarpaulin over the tempest of feelings and emotions raging inside. The performance is a sort of cross between the innocent shyness of her work in Brooklyn, and the inexperienced awkwardness of her Lady Bird turn, and one more wonderful example of her ability to conjure up palatable chemistry with whoever she’s paired up with. In this one that honour falls to Billy Howle, who aside from one of the worst crying scenes I’ve ever seen, otherwise works brilliantly alongside his co-star as this troubled, confused, sort of lost young man trying to escape into proper adult society. There’s a childlike quality about his stupidity that works a charm, and what also adds layers to the movie is the way he never tries to play to your sympathies, or cash in on his dastardly qualities. When push comes to shove he is very much a product of the time he lives in, almost horrific to witness now, but wonderfully oblivious to his issues in a way that leaves no trace of phoniness, of a performance.

The two of them are ably supported in small roles by luminaries like Samuel West, Anne-Marie Duff, and Emily Watson, but none of them have much to do. This one rises and falls on the shoulders of the two leads (with a little help from an amazing makeup job!).

As a whole the movie’s only real drawback is that it feels sort of slight. There isn’t much in the storytelling or acting that you can fault, it’s well constructed, coherently constructed, which is admirable given the heavy reliance on flashbacks, but it’s sort of an old fashioned teen movie when it comes down to it, and its thematic explorations of the ideas it branches out in to are too quickly skirted over to lend the thing much weight. A nice film, but unlikely to be one that will linger in the memory.