Far Away In Time
In my line of work, you may occasionally find yourself having to teach opposites, which is not always as straightforward as you might think. The opposite of 'long' is easy; it's 'short'. The opposite of 'difficult' – well, that's easy, too. But what about 'light'? Is it 'dark' or 'heavy'? Or is it both? What about 'strong'?
Long-term readers may recall my occasional amusement at some of the prefatory guidance provided by the British censor on their certifications, and it seems I am not alone in this. 'Contains strong sex and sexual content' ran the blurb ahead of Dominic Cooke's On Chesil Beach, which I saw a matinee showing of at Oxford's best-mannered cinema. The audience there looked so respectable and well-brought-up I wouldn't have been at all surprised if some of them had actually read Ian McEwan's novella, upon which it is based. Nevertheless, someone at the back said, just a bit too loudly, 'Strong sex? As opposed to what, weak sex?'
Well, many a true word is spoken in attempted jest, for weak sex is in a sense what On Chesil Beach is about, not that it initially shows much sign of this. Perhaps this is really the point. The film opens in 1962, with the arrival on the eponymous UNESCO world heritage site of a young couple, Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan). They are newlyweds, and both clearly nervous, aware of the significance of their first night together as a married couple, and – outwardly at least – keen to discharge their responsibilities to each other. Through an extended series of flashbacks, the film sketches in their backgrounds and history – Florence is a musician, from quite a posh background: her mother and father are ferociously Tory and perhaps incline somewhat towards a tough parenting style. Edward, a historian, is from slightly more humble roots, his life somewhat defined by the fact his mother has been prone to rather eccentric behaviour since she was hit in the head by a train. They are clearly utterly in love with one another.
However, this being 1962, with the permissive society still to really get going, Edward and Florence really don't have much idea about what comes next. From the beginning one is instantly struck by the sense that these are two people playing roles, going through the motions simply because they believe it is what expected of them. It is sort of funny, sort of sad; you really do feel for them. But then it becomes simply rather excruciating to watch two people, at considerable length and in considerable detail, fail to have sex, especially because you can tell this is all they really want to do, and this failure is clearly going to have consequences.
On Chesil Beach starts off by looking like the kind of well-heeled period literary adaptation which we produce on a fairly regular basis here in the UK – the cinematography is beautiful, the recreation of Oxford around 1960 is superbly done. This is initially presented as a kind of halcyon era – there is warm beer and cricket matches, people wandering about on Christchurch Meadow, catching steam trains (when not being hit in the head by them), and so on. And there is the kind of very strong cast you would expect for this kind of film. Saoirse Ronan is the big draw, obviously, but she is matched step for step by Billy Howle, and there is an excellent supporting cast – principally, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson and Samuel West.
It initially seems like this is to be a forensic, not unsympathetic depiction of the mores of the period, which seems like an unimaginably distant and different one: Florence has no idea who Chuck Berry is, but upon hearing one of his songs on the radio decides it sounds 'merry'. The class tension between Edward and Florence's parents, in particular, is also sharply drawn. There are moments of comedy as well as drama, with the two subtly shading into one another – West's performance as Florence's absurdly driven father would certainly qualify as a brilliant comic miniature, were it not for the fact that there are definite hints of genuine darkness in his history.
And then – well, it is difficult to say much without spoiling what seems to me to be one of the best films of the year so far. Things do not go according to plan, someone quite possibly overreacts, decisions are made that cannot be unmade. There is a sense in which the film is obviously suggesting that this is all the result of the kind of repressed society where young people are forced to educate themselves in matters amatory, but it never feels like it is pointing a finger or apportioning blame. Everyone is shaped by their background, after all, whether they decide to adopt the role expected of them or rebel against it; no-one is really wholly self-made. And yet the film's sense of sadness is overwhelming as it progresses; what looks like it may simply be another one of those somewhat bleak films about British people being bad in bed ultimately turns into a crushingly tragic story, made all the more so because there is so little to suggest this as the film begins.
This is a product of the BBC's film division, and many people might say that one of the distinguishing features of a BBC movie is the fact that it seems very much at home on the small screen – that BBC Films productions are frequently just a bit too genteel and not really cinematic enough to fully satisfy. Well, I would say this one is a bit different – most obviously, it has two marvellous performances from Ronan and Howle, both of whom appear to be carved from solid star quality, but Cooke's direction has a style and ambition about it which is very much at home on the big screen. The creation of a nostalgic picture-postcard world is finely achieved, as is the moment where our departure from it is signalled by the sudden intrusion into the soundtrack of the growling opening riff from T-Rex's 20th Century Boy, signalling a jump forward in time of many years. There is also something beautifully simple and symbolic about the closing shot of the film, the camera constantly pulling back to keep the two characters involved at the edges of the screen as they move inexorably away from each other.
As I say, On Chesil Beach is hardly a cheery film, but it is one of the highest quality on pretty much every level. I had heard good things about it, but I did not expect it to move me so profoundly in the way it did. Not the kind of entertainment you walk home from whistling, but there's a reason why people listen to sad songs, too – this is a deeply humane and beautifully-made film, well worth watching.