Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 50 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity
Our star rating (1-5): 4
I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem,
do not stir up or awaken love
until it is ready!
Song of Solomon 8:4
I wonder if novelist Ian McEwan was familiar with the Biblical poet’s warning about awakening love “until it is ready,” contained in both chapters 2 and 8 of the great love poem. The two lovers in the film, directed by Dominic Cooke and adapted by the novelist, are clearly “not ready” when it comes time to consummate their love on their wedding night. According to the novel and film the main contributor to their failure is the prevailing culture of 1962 England when Victorian abhorrence and fear of sex prevents open talk about it and generates guilt over even thinking about it.
The film begins on the summer day in 1962 when Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) have come to a beach-side hotel after celebrating their wedding earlier that day. Both are shy and awkward, he not even aware that he should be tipping the waiters who have brought to their room and served their dinner. The film switches back and forth between the moment and the past, revealing their unlikely meeting and courtship.
He was a grad student in history when they met in a college courtyard where she was engaged in handing out ban-the-bomb leaflets. She was a talented violinist organizing an amateur string quartet. He preferred Chuck Berry, she Mozart. His parents are lower class, hers well-connected socially and politically, her mother Violet (Emily Watson) almost sneering when she comments on her daughter’s choice of a beau.
Some of the flashbacks are charming, especially the one wherein Edward takes Florence to meet his parents. His mother Marjorie (Ann-Marie Duff) is a victim of a freak train accident, her brain injured when an open coach door banged into her as she stood too close to the tracks. She had been an aspiring artist, but she still paints despite lapses of memory and the disconcerting tendency to remove her clothes while working. Florence relates to her so well that his father and siblings immediately take to her, his father telling him, “Marry that girl!”
Back at the hotel, with dinner finished, Florence and Edward move to the bedroom, but with extreme awkwardness, he unable to unzip his bride’s dress. In a flashback we had seen at a cinema where other couples were “making out,” Edward tries to fondle Florence, but she rejects his advances. In still another scene she reads a sex manual, reacting against such terms as “penetration.” In bed, she, expecting that he has had some experience in the mysterious rite, asks how many times he has had relations with a girl, and, after some fumbling, he admits she is his first. After his painfully frustrating attempt, she gets up, dresses, and flees the room.
After some hesitation Edward goes after her, the two on the beach confronting one another with confused and angry accusations. Their future hangs in the balance. But neither has the understanding nor the words to bring about reconciliation.
The film is a heart-felt depiction of “If only…” I have not read the novel, but the objections of critics who have and write that the film is a disappointing adaptation do not take away the effect the film had on me. The charm and beauty of the flashbacks compared to the ugliness of the beach confrontation I still found moving. As one who came of age during this same period, I was especially struck by the sex manual scene, because that was also my introduction to the mechanics of sex, neither of my parents or any relative ever speaking a word about subject, other than to warn of its dangers during my teens and, after my engagement, “go get a book.”
The postlude scenes set five years later, in which we learn a little more of the future of Florence and Edward, might have spoiled things for readers of the novel, but not for this viewer. For me it is saved by the wonderful performances by a fine cast, especially of course, the radiant Saoirse Ronan who has become a world-class actress, already having been nominated for Oscars three times.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the July issue of Visual Parables.