“On Chesil Beach”

“ On Chesil Beach” is a not so unusual story about a six-hour marriage. If you ask friends if they know of any marriages that did not survive the honeymoon most can name two. Try it. What is unusual about the  novelist’s Ian McEwan’s screenplay is that it reorders how we think about love.

The film begins with calm seaside views and rather disjointed music. We think the pebble beach scene and the rock and roll tempo don’t match. Alas, neither do the expectations of the virginal Eddie and Flo.

In a series of flashbacks, memory pieces, we are introduced to two young Oxford students, their love at first-site encounter, and their family histories. The build-up is too slow, but the personalities of both Edward’s artist mother ( Anne-Marie Duff) and Florence’s  teacher/father  ( Samuel West ) add emotional nuances that are intriguing as we watch our protagonists circumvent and effectively deal with difficult parents and middle and upper-class divides.

In a time frame beginning with the early nineteen sixties and touching on 1975, thirteen years later, and then 2007, thirty-two years later, we get to surmise the onward progression of our characters’ lives and of their regrets.

Award-winning theatrical director Dominic Cooke directs his first feature film with “On Chesil Beach”. His entire cast, at the top of their game, show 1962 sexual repression and cultural conformity  in re-robing nakedness, in marking cricket lines, and in turning music pages one corner at a time. Rules shine in the piece: spontaneity be damned.

Help is offered. The minister tries to get Flo to voice her fears; Edward’s father tries to engage his distraught son. Actors Saoirse Rowan and Billy Howle are brilliant in showing how sexual fears of inadequacy impede physical intimacy. A sense of humor is not something that comes easily for neophytes in any new endeavor.

Innocence and inexperience are a given, but Flo’s problem-solving solution is most frustrating. How can she say she is no good at something she has never tried? How can she be so incurious and unventuresome when it comes to her own body and that of her chosen lover? I did not register any abuse or past trauma in McEwan’s screenplay, yet what else could it be? Could the rather clinical sex manual she references be that traumatizing?

For all her charms, Saoirse Rowen has a difficult time making us take her side. Her extreme sense of control even to the point of  strongly suggesting that she remove her own stockings, was more pathetic than funny. While Billy Howle had all my sympathy with his fumblings, an older man sitting behind us emoted, “ It’s about time!” in pure disgust and frustration. Other viewers will recall their own “first time”, and it is here that the film succeeds. “On Chesil Beach” succeeds in  not in showing fumbled touching, but in orchestrating truly touching scenes.

We see Howle and Saoirse sharing the events that made them feel like independent movers in the world, grown-ups. For Flo, it was buying her own single train ticket at thirteen; for Eddie, it was defending a Jewish friend from racist remarks. We hear the kind, but uppity, Flo tell how Eddie is not like anyone she has ever met. “He knows birds, always has a history book in his pocket and a pencil stub…and does not know a beignet from a croissant.”

If Florence’s mother thinks Ed is a “ bit of a country bumpkin”, Ed thinks Flo is a tad “ square” with her classical music. He is an “rock and roll” enthusiast. Their courtship does not seem stilted, yet there are dating episodes where everybody is making out at the movies, but them. They share goals, and there is a wonderful Mozart piece where octave changes are taught. In their physical relationship, Flo understands that Ed is always advancing, and she is always backing away. Yes, Florence looks mildly terrorized, but more priggish. Ed is still recoiling from two waiters laughing at him, but can still ask, “ What is it, darling?” when Flo hesitates with “ it sort of tickles”. Flo ends up running two miles down the beach.

Edward flaring temper leads to one of the most painful honeymoon arguments ever seen, thus our title, “On Chesil Beach”. Verbal stones are thrown. “It was unfair of you to run out like that!” She responds with how “ unpleasant and revolting” it all is. And a great octave leap has a humiliated man making a decision he will later come to rue.

The ending of this film seems improbable and a tad manipulative, yet it gets the emotion that it wants from the audience. Could patience have saved the day? Five kids with the cello player seems like he might have a technique down. We wish Ed had ten children in tow.


“The Sense Of An Ending”

It has been six years since I read Julian Barnes’ 2011 novella. I found it well- written, but distant; so complicated, that I read it over again. Unreliable narrators aside, the book did not touch me emotionally. It was a mystery to be solved. Not so with the beautiful film of the same name. ” The Sense Of An Ending” is matchless in showing the disconnects between people, memory, and truth ; but, the film makes us feel it.

Much of this successful emotional connecting  is because of the character actor, Jim Broadbent. He deserves an Oscar for this performance. On screen almost constantly, his face moves in life’s flow. He is the young lover, the  admiring friend, the left husband, the respectful, yet curmudgeonly father, the stalker of an old love and the impetus of pain. Billy Howle plays Tony’s younger self, a high school senior in love for the first time. His innocence commands each frame. Then, forty some years are lived that we are told very little about.

Broadbent takes over the two-part story in his sixties. We know he is divorced and that he and his savvy ex-wife care for each other. They have a lesbian daughter who is about to give birth and both parents are supportive. Harriet Walter plays the ex, and she is amazing to watch. Insightful, no nonsense, and humorously self-possessed. We see a modern woman who is surprised at how out-of-touch her ex is with his motivations, let alone his feelings. ” You can’t see what is right under your nose.”

Her ex-husband has never talked about his first love or their break-up. When the mother of his first love dies, it is oddly Tony who is to inherit. Not money, but a diary. And not the diary of his first love, but of his Cambridge friend, Adrian Finn.

Why would this artifact from his youth be in the possession of the wacky mother of Tony’s first girlfriend ? Secrets abound, it seems.

We learn that Tony’s adolescent rejected-lover, revenge letter may have contributed to his friend’s suicide, and certainly destroyed his first love’s promise. Since his truth is now warped by guilt, we are led to question reality and our place in our own.

Especially effective is the placement of the older Tony Webster ( Broadbent) in the memories of his youth. We see and feel him acutely in his efforts to go back and reimagine his story.

Director Ritesh Batra work continues to enthrall ( “The Lunchbox” , reviewed here on 2/9/15). The 37 year-old, Indian film-maker has my following. Likewise, playwright Nick Payne has adapted a very difficult Booker Prize Winner into a reflection for the ages. Think of it as a coming-of-age story in reverse.

The re-emerging use of the postal service and the camera store as words and images to aid in the recording of time and events is lovely. Special care is taken when Tony tears a postcard or a photo into fragments of distain.

Story linkage and movement are often propelled through communal dining. Restaurants, bars, cafes, school dining halls, and coffee houses and family kitchens are the most frequent settings. When a hospital room or a bridge is shot, it points to a healing that the book’s more nihilistic world view avoids.

I loved this film. Who doesn’t consider how our decisions would have been different if we knew in our youth what has been revealed to us now ? As Tony narrates his memories he muses, ” You want your emotions to support your life as it comes…” The flashbacks burst out in the opening of a door, or in a hot skillet set in water, or in the popping of a knuckle. This is lovely film-making.

Even when Tony first meets Veronica’s hyper-sexualized family: the flirty, competitive mother , the sicko brother , and the basin-unloading father , maturity would have helped him navigate the perils.  Sad, hidden tales are no doubt here. Their daughter Veronica’s cool exterior and teasing maneuvers went beyond a type. Actress Freya Mavor is terrific in her coy coolness and coquettish playfulness.

Charlotte Rampling is the sixtyish Veronica. Showing how much can be between-the-lines is what Rampling excels at in every performance. ( “45 Years” , reviewed here 2/7/16). She doesn’t seem to suffer from the imperfections of memory. She gave Tony his first camera. She told in question form: ” You are quite cowardly aren’t you?” when he let her lead their relationship. She, as executor of her mother’s estate, burns Adrian’s diary. It is she that says that Tony has no moral right to it. She hands him his vengeful letter, which she has kept for over forty years and forcefully says with extradinary coolness, ” Because you seem to need something to win.”

She leaves; he stalks her to Highgate Station. We know she has suffered. We know  in his ex- wife’s words that he needs ” to mop the drool”! This is about more than “closing the circle”. It is not about “shrine building”.  It is about how we make sense out of our lives even when we have hurt others by misjudging them.

The film’s score is beautiful. Many songs are nostalgically about time. “Time On My Side” and ” If I Had You” to name just two. A birth and a rebirth give hope to a story that had none, and the four-second screen hold in the last shot over “camera repairs” is the attention to detail that film auteurs love. I say, ” Don’t miss this one,” especially if you have read the book on which it is based.