The wonderful actress Saoirse Ronan does her best to make her character Florence Ponting believable in the film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novella “On Chesil Beach,” but she doesn’t succeed, at least not for me. The time is 1962, and Oxford-educated middle-class violinist Florence Ponting is in love with working-class Edward Mayhew (a very good Billy Howle), who she met at a anti-nuclear rally. Florence’s parents are stiff creeps who think Edward is beneath her while he is from a warm family struggling to deal with his brain-damaged artist mother. Florence is very kind to Edward’s mother and genuinely seems to love him. There are lots of scenes of their idyllic wanderings through beautiful English countryside and though Florence avoids anything more intimate than a brief kiss, it is the early 60s after all.
After a traditional wedding, the couple go off to a beachside honeymoon hotel. That’s where the trouble starts. Equally nervous and awkward, they struggle through a nasty-looking wedding dinner in their room. When they move toward the bed, however, Florence freaks out at the thought of having sex with her brand-new husband and races out of the room and down the beach. There’s a life-altering scene there that I won’t spoil, but found totally manipulative.
Directed by Dominic Cooke from McEwan’s screenplay, the story is told through flashbacks as the film shifts away from the honeymoon scene to give us a sense of the couple’s courtship, family life, and ambitions. Florence is a serious musician who leads a string quartet while Edward has discovered American rock and roll via Chuck Berry. The sexual revolution hasn’t reached Britain yet, but it’s a stretch to believe that a guy like Edward would have had no sexual experience at 22. People have been having sex for a very long time, after all. The reasons behind Florence’s aversion to sex are cliched by now, and I was never convinced that her behavior made emotional sense. The set design and costumes are perfect, of course, as they usually are in these British productions. I’m not an admirer of McEwan’s fiction–for me, it’s annoyingly tricky–and someone who loves his books may have an entirely different reaction. The film is getting good reviews, and there’s not that much else to see.
Paul Schrader is Back. Hooray!
For me, a much more successful effort comes from the screenwriter of “Taxi Driver” and “American Gigolo.” Paul Schrader has a new film out, one he wrote and directed, which is very different from his most famous work. “First Reformed” is a powerful examination of the spiritual and personal despair of an alcoholic pastor at a historic upstate New York church, a movie as austere and contained as “Taxi Driver” is explosive and operatic. Played brilliantly by Ethan Hawke, Rev. Toller used to be a military chaplain with a wife and a son. After his son dies in the war in Iraq, Toller falls apart. His wife leaves him, he begins to drink heavily, he leaves the military and is spinning out of control until he’s rescued by an old friend, the pastor of a megachurch, (an excellent Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer) who gives him a job at the 250-year-old Dutch Reformed church that hardly anyone attends.
At the beginning of the film, Toller starts a journal, vowing to keep writing honestly for a year. In his black cassock, Hawke is a portrait of despond as he moves mechanically from his almost empty house to the equally empty church. It’s winter and everything is the film is still and gray. Toller’s journal entries are just as bleak. Things only get worse when a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) reaches out and asks him to counsel her radical environmentalist husband. As Toller talks to the young man and hears his arguments for not bringing children into a world that is on the brink of destruction, he finds himself listening more than refuting. The husband’s suicide leads Toller deeper into the abyss he’s been skirting and toward a fascination with violence. In this way, the movie is reminiscent of “Taxi Driver,” but Tollard is not Travis Bickle. Still, both films play with the idea of violence as a cleansing of social decay and the religious parameters of sacrifice.
I found “First Reformed” compelling, and Schrader’s mastery of mood and film composition brings out the deep and harrowing spiritual issues at the heart of the film. What do believers owe to their society and themselves? How do we interpret God’s demands? Can faith exist without action?
Something to Listen to on the Bus
I love podcasts and a lot of my favorites come from Slate, such as the Political Gabfest. They’ve introduced a new one that’s a welcome change from our political drumbeat of scandal and ruin. Give Me Your Ears looks at contemporary politics through Shakespeare’s plays, focusing on several that deal directly with leadership. I listened to the one on “Julius Caesar” and enjoyed it. Now I’m looking forward to “King Lear,” “Richard III” and others. It’s a limited series, which is good too.
Anything Good on TV?
Another series that’s been fun is “KIlling Eve” on BBCA. I don’t know if it will continue, but what I’ve seen so far has been great. Sandra Oh stars as an American working for the British secret service and searching for a psycho female assassin who is killing people all over Europe. Written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the author of “Fleabag,” the show is witty, exciting, and unpredictable. Spy thrillers are usually not my thing because they are too twisty for me to follow, but this one is an exception.
If you want more charismatic women who are total nut jobs, watch the Netflix documentary “Wild Wild Country.” This six-part series tells the true story of an Indian guru and his followers who bought a large piece of land in rural Oregon in the late 1970s. Clashing with the locals, they began to run for government offices, which enabled them to take over the town and make dramatic changes. What happened is almost unbelievable, but the most astonishing character may be the guru’s right-hand woman, Me Anand Sheela. Is she a self-righteous maniac or a misunderstood do-gooder? It’s a wild ride indeed.