On Chesil Beach Dominic Cooke (UK 2017) Billie Howie; Soairse Ronan
Script: Ian McEwan
Viewed Tyneside Cinema 29 May 2018; ticket £9.75
Let them wear the hats
Chesil Beach is a 18 mile shingle strand connecting the Isle of Portland to the Dorset mainland. It is very particular place with a characteristic geomorphology that has both psychic and a mythic resonance.
Sometimes the opening shot or montage at the start of a movie defines something about either the film’s purpose or its ambition. The opening shot of Cooke’s On Chesil Beach (co-produced by BBC Films, more of this later) , is a medium wide shot of a beach, followed by some half a dozen shots of waves breaking and various angle shots of the sea shore. Establishment shots that establish nothing. Shots that could be shots of any beach anywhere. Stock shots. And by the end of the film we understand that these shots presage a film that has little ambition and no originality, that is happy to employ a tired format that re-enacts a series of cameo sequences that have been seen many times before. Cooke’s movie would have more appropriately titles: ‘Stock Shot Beach.
John Osborne was a playwright and screen writer who has cast a long shadow over the scripting of British films. His acerbic representation of class in his 1956 play Look Back in Anger (later filmed in 1959 by Tony Richardson), still provides the average Brit film maker with a default position on interclass male /female relationships.
Film scripts like McEwan’s Chesil Beach are play outs of the same stereotypical individuals and situations that characterise Osborne’s writing. McEwan’s script replicates Osborne’s bitter perception of upper middle class characters with their sense of superiority and their contempt for the lower orders. In Anger as in Chesil Beach these combine to make the women (often known as: ‘Mummy’) unavoidably (if sometimes apologetically) snobbish; and the men (often known as: Daddy) aggressively assertive of the prerogatives of their status.
The situation in Chesil Beach, as in Osborne’s drama, is of a young male from a lower social order getting off with a female scion of a better class of person. The device of class tension with its stock characterisation is what Cooke’s Chesil Beach offers up to the audience by way of the context to the playing out of the script.
Other than this it is difficult to see what Cooke’s Chesil Beach is about other than where it is coming from: it is something from the BBC (dominant co-producers) drama department. We are told, through a caption, that it is: 1962. This has one meaning: Cozzies and Sets. Proper dresses, ties and period cars that tell that this is a BBC production, and the BBC do ‘period’.
‘Period’! For all the difference it makes Chesil Beach might be set in the ‘1930’s’. Although Chesil Beach is tricked out with scripted referencing to ‘jazz’, CND and the Berlin Wall, these are surface reflections that play no part in the fabric of the film. J.P. Hartley’s catch phrase in the Go Between that, ‘ …the past is another country…’, has been taken to heart by BBC producers to mean a sort of licensed inconsequentiality. Find a pretty boy find a pretty girl, wrap them in fixtures and fittings then let them find their way towards sex. As long as it’s a sentimental journey, the audience will buy the ticket. McEwan and Cooke are on message. On payroll.
In short Chesil Beach has both the form and the content of a cynically manufactured product. It is designed to tick the boxes of commissioning editors, and buyers of international film TV and on-line rights. Intelligence and thinking in the making of film. TV /online thinking, is purely along the lines of exploitation. The audience are conceived as passive receptacles rather than active engagers in the material. As passive receptors, they are screen fodder to be manipulated.
Annotating manipulation. Feminism, in its commercialised orientations, has become corrupted in many ways, becoming part of the diktat relating to commercial expressive narrative products. The scripts and scenarios flowing out of Hollywood and Europe have adopted a women and children first type of moral maxim in relation to female protagonists. This results in the scripting of childish pusillanimous narrations in which the women characters ( as yet the producers haven’t really come to terms with gender benders and migrated gender protagonists, but they will) are carefully plotted to emerge from their ordeal odyssey or quest as the winners in any given situation. Sometimes, as winners will know, winning has costs, but this idea seems to be lost on most contemporary film makers working for the multiplex or TV ticket. In the bad old days of TV and film Westerns the bad guys wore black hats and the good guys wore white hats, just in case the audience didn’t get the plot. Today with the predictability of sexist moral stereotyping, the women might as well don the white chapeaux.
On Chesil Beech is dire in this respect. Florence is a saint. A woman who exudes love and whose warmth charms all those with whom she comes into contact. She is just a little uncertain about penetrative sex. (But otherwise in the script she seems happy with physicality). Edward on the other hand, is not a bad guy though the scripts adumbrates an underlying violence in his nature; and in relation to the crassly shot wedding night sexual tryst, Ed is scripted all the bum notes, of course. And Ed’s behaviour makes him the transgressor whose actions, it is suggested, are punished for the rest of his life. Florence of course does very well and, without Ed, has a dazzlingly successful career in classical music.
It all ends in tears at the Wigmore Hall. But this pay off is like the junk food eaten at the movies: designed to sate the emotional appetite for as long as it takes the audience to leave the cinema or go and fix themselves a drink.