* * * * (out of five)
Ian McEwan is one of my favourite novelists, and Saoirse Ronan is hands down the actor exciting me most these days. Ronan in a McEwan adaptation, therefore, is catnip to me; thrillingly, On Chesil Beach is worthy of its stellar ingredients. It is sublime.
It no doubt helps that McEwan wrote the screenplay himself; he is admirably loyal to his own material. But so, too are director Dominic Cooke and production designer Suzie Davies; this is one of those blessed adaptations – the television version of Patrick Melrose is another – that looks and feels just like the book did in your head.
Ronan is typically magnificent as Florence Ponting, an upper-class young woman whom we meet on the afternoon of her wedding. Crucially, we are in England, and it is 1962. Her young groom is Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle); he is of a different class, from a different area, and, therefore, might as well be from another country. Luckily, the two are very much in love; tragically, neither are particularly experienced in the sexual arts, and the wedding bed, sitting metres away in the hotel room they’ve taken on Chesil Beach, waits for them like an electric chair.
McEwan uses this rather slight premise, which takes place over two hours at most, to expose the British condition in the early sixties as cripplingly class conscious, rigid and as bland as the horrendous plate of overcooked beef, potatoes and veg the young newlyweds are served, “silver service”, in their suite. That’s not a new trope in literature, nor in cinema, and the film is hardly revelatory. It’s all in the execution, which is sublime. Cooke is making his feature film debut after an acclaimed career in the theatre, and he proves masterly at tone, composition and pace. Literary adaptations, particularly of books like this one, featuring flashbacks and occasionally flashbacks-within-flashbacks, are notoriously tricky, and most, frankly, fail. This one soars, lifted ever skyward on the back of Ronan’s impeccably modulated performance. She is modern cinema’s truest star.