Adapting Ian McEwan’s languorous, dreamy prose, in which his omniscient narrators gently probe the folds of his characters’ minds, is no simple task.
It’s doubly tough with On Chesil Beach, a slip of a novel – more a novella, really – the entirety of which takes place in a seaside hotel and the adjacent 18-mile finger of shingle that links Weymouth with Portland; only flashbacks offer an insight into the life and times of its two leads.
Saoirse Ronan stars in her second McEwan adaptation, after the excellent Atonement, here playing honeymooning newly-wed Florence, who’s dreading the consummation of her vows with Edward, who for his part thinks he’s been plenty patient, thank you very much (it’s 1962, for Pete’s sake!).
The novel dwells on the internal anxieties of the pair: Flo fears intimacy for reasons only hinted at; Edward fears “arriving too soon”. Ronan is the perfect actor to realise this on screen – her every subtle flinch and tightened muscle screams of her discomfort. Billy Howle isn’t quite her match, but his character requires less craft – he’s generally likeable but directionless, utterly ill-equipped to understand his wife or her emotional problems.
McEwan resists a neat resolution, eventually abandoning one of his characters altogether, creating a negative space for the reader to fill. The film re-writes the ending to allow for a more cinematic finale; if you don’t shed a tear you’re a monster, but the short, sharp tug on the emotional heart-strings feels like a small betrayal of a novel that presents lack of closure as a tragic, sometimes insurmountable symptom of life.