THE screening of On Chesil Beach featuring a talk from its author Ian McEwan was the highlight of Bridport’s Page to Screen festival, a celebration of books and their on screen adaptations.

McEwan, the film’s screenwriter, told a Bridport Electric Palace audience that he couldn’t imagine any other setting for the big screen version of On Chesil Beach. The film’s stars, Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, were seen filming at Chesil Beach around two years ago - triggering the start of the countdown to seeing Dorset’s iconic 18 mile sweep of pebbles on the big screen. And the wait is nearly over - there are just three weeks to go until On Chesil Beach goes on general release in UK cinemas.

McEwan told his Dorset audience that he couldn’t imagine any other setting for his novel.

“It was so important to me that we shoot on Chesil Beach,” he said. “Where the lagoon meets the sea, and the real meets the imaginary - that’s the space I needed for the characters. They end up trapped in this liminal space.”

On Chesil Beach, set mostly in the 1960s, is the story of a young couple, Florence and Edward, celebrating their honeymoon at a hotel on the eponymous Dorset beach. The wedding night founders on the pair’s sexual incompatibility.

Many of the film’s scenes are filmed on Chesil Beach, and nearby Lulworth Cove also makes an appearance.

Producer Elizabeth Karlsen meanwhile spoke of the technical difficulties of shooting on the beach, requiring a five ton crane to be rowed across to shoot aerial scenes.

“We were adamant that nowhere else would do,” she said.

n Read on for The Guide’s exclusive review.


THE unmistakeable moody sweep of Chesil Beach at last reaches the big screen in this poignant adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel of inaction, loss and the unbridgeable gap between two people.

Dorset residents will be delighted to see the beach’s alluring curves, after serving many dutiful years in landscape photography, make their big-screen debut, forming a psycho-geographical backdrop to a honeymoon that inexorably descends into disappointment and recrimination.

Picturesque, likeable, yet oddly sexless, Edward and Florence embody the sort of buttoned-up seaside resort where an upstanding young couple of the early 1960s might have been expected to spend their honeymoon. Matching in auburn hair, fresh faces and cheery demeanour, the couple have come to Chesil Beach for the first night of their marriage, the culmination of a fairy-tale courtship. He is strong and broad-featured, but puppy-like, a history graduate and cricketer with bumpkinesque tendencies. She is neat but chirpy, a talented violinist and daughter of a prosperous conservative family. The marriage looks unassailable - until it reaches the wedding bed, and their ship runs aground on Florence’s crippling fear of intimacy.

Here is the film’s climactic, so to speak, scene, containing a brief shot of unexpected viscerality that sends Florence into paroxysms of distress and Edward retreating sulkily into himself. As with all climaxes, from here, for the rest of their lives, the only way is down.

A film about a relationship can only ever be as good as its two lead actors, and Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle are carefully cast. Ronan, who played younger sister Bryony in a previous McEwan adaptation, Atonement, works hard to balance Florence’s contradictory character, mixing self-possession with inner turmoil, while Howle makes the most of his simpler role.

McEwan, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, has spoken of the unique topography of Chesil Beach as a representative liminal space trapping Edward and Florence between lagoon and channel, just as they find themselves trapped between expectation and reality, between the desires of one and the other’s lack of desire.

Certainly the shots on the beach are the most arresting; they bookend the film, marking the progress from early innocence to final despair and separation.

Much of the camerawork is claustrophobic, the camera following its characters closely up and down staircases, through doorways, staying close to their faces; a wide perspective is rarely permitted. Many of the best shots are excellent in their subtlety. Florence’s tendency towards primness is carefully introduced; in one scene, seeing Edward’s brain-damaged mother painting with her breasts exposed, she moves to cover up her nakedness, drawing a look of hurt bewilderment. The source of Florence’s extreme sexual reticence is half-implied to be childhood sexual abuse at the hands of her father, a caricatured bourgeois paterfamilias liable to lash out in sudden fury at his daughter - Edward, who is present at one such scene, fails to intervene.

Where the film missteps is where it most sharply diverges from the novel.

A cringingly unconvincing denouement involving an abnormally garrulous child, new to the screenplay, leads to a mawkish end that might have been better left unshown - though that is perhaps an option more available to the novel than to cinema.

It didn’t help that instead of casting new actors to play the leads four decades on, the baffling decision was made to plaster Ronan and Howle with wrinkle-effect makeup, their tears leaving deep grooves in the texture.

But these are minor quibbles; like the feet of Edward and Florence on the yielding shingle, this is a film that leaves an impression.

n On Chesil Beach is in UK cinemas on Friday, May 18.