The Two Reviews: On Chesil Beach and BlacKkKlansman

On Chesil Beach (2018, Number 9 Films, BBC Films & Lionsgate)
Directed by Dominic Cooke, based on a novel by Ian McEwan, featuring Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Ann-Marie Duff and Samuel West.

The film On Chesil Beach is a romantic drama based on the short novel of the same name by Ian McEwan. It is directed by first time director Dominic Cooke, and interestingly, Ian McEwan is the script writer. I understand that the script is more or less faithful to the book, except that the ending is different, perhaps making a more obvious conclusion in a modern day romantic tragedy.

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Set mostly in 1962, it follows a budding violinist named Florence Ponting (played by Saoirse Ronan) and a recent history graduate named Edward Mayhew (played by Billy Howle) who meet, fall in love and marry. They are from different backgrounds and both are from families afflicted by darkness or difficulty. Almost two thirds of the film is set in the afternoon of their wedding day – in the hotel or on the pebbled Chesil Beach on the South English coast. There are also falshbacks to earlier times (a few too many flashbacks one would say).  There is a slow, awkward exploration of their intimacy, or rather their difficulty with it. Things seems to develop slowly and awkwardly in the right direction but then go suddenly wrong. Edward feels humiliated and Florence is struggling to find a way forward for them, but without sexual intimacy. She suggests she will love him and stay with him but he might want to find intimacy with other women. On their wedding day, moments after a disastrous attempt at sexual intimacy with his new wife he can’t bare the scenario. And it’s over. The last third of the film is set in two small time frames, 13 years later and then 45 years later. Without revealing the ending, it is both sweet and full of regret.

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The narrative, which is concerns a troubled love story, draws heavily on the Romantics of the late 18th century and 19th Century. A windy coast with cliffs in the background, brooding clouds in the air, the tweet of birds and music in sensuous tones, all play their part in creating an idealised notion of love and innocence mediated through aesthetics. Or am I getting all intellectual on you? The film maker obviously just likes setting a troubled romance on a windy beach! Ronan and Howle are both fine in their roles, and while there are a lot of words, a more revealing language between them is their body language – full of tenderness, anxiety and uncertainty.

The film – and I assume the book – deal with the consequences of a decision made at a time of heightened emotions, without either of them having the adult capacity or adequate language to truly communicate their love for one another. Hmmm…well, it’s okay, but there is not a lot of new ground to cover in this story. 1960s’ hang-ups about sexuality get in the way of a lasting relationship…cry a bit at what could have been and then reflect: “if only he wasn’t so proud and calmed down to sort it all out, and if only she could have told him this and that…”. Hasn’t this been done before? I think it has. Is this version okay? Yeah, it’s okay but it doesn’t stand out. If you have read the book, you might want to see this film. If you haven’t read the book, you might still want to see this film, but you’ll probably have to like slow moving dramas. On the other hand, if you don’t see this film, no one is going to say to you: “OMG, it is so so wonderful, you just really have to see it”.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens, Rated 2.5/5

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BlacKkKlansman (2018, Legendary Entertainment & Focus Features)
Directed by Spike Lee, based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth, featuring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Jasper Pääkkönen and Alec Baldwin.

Spike Lee is a passionate and talented film maker and has probably been one of the most important figures in modern American cinema over the last 30 years. His films in the late 80s and early to mid-90s (such as She’s Gotta Have It, Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Malcolm X and Clockers) are perhaps the most memorable of what has so far been a very prolific career. Despite a lull in the quality of his film-work since then, he has still  maintained a prime focus on the here-and-now on matters such as racial divisions and urban crime. It is a welcome to see him come forth this year with another hard-hitter that is up there with his best. Alongside Get Out, BlackKkKlansman is perhaps the most important film on race to come out in the last few years.

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The film is a combination of many genres – thriller, drama, comedy, caper – but it grows beyond all of those for a single reason that becomes apparent in the absolute chilling and powerful last 10 minutes. The events at Charlottesville, Virginia this time last year shook many to the core around the world for its deeply disturbing, racially-motivated hatred and violence. Spike Lee pulls no punches in presenting all of the available brutal footage as an epilogue to the film. Of course, it is followed by ‘that moment’ when a President of the United States provided his backing for a group of racists and bigots whose actions directly led to the injury and death of peaceful demonstrators. Lee knows only too well the implication that this event will have in the future, and he wisely fashions a historic-based film to mark it.

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The film itself is set in Colorado Springs (a mid-west city) in the early 1970s, where cocksure Ron Stallworth (who wrote the memoir the film is based on) joins the police department as its first African-American detective. After going undercover at a talk given by the ‘black power’ leader Stokely Carmichael, Stallworth is reassigned to intelligence and he goes on a rogue mission to infiltrate the extant Ku Klux Klan. He recruits his co-worker Flip Zimmerman (a man of Jewish heritage) to go undercover as his proxy with a small wing of the ‘organisation’ and foil their potential plans for a violent attack on civil rights activists. John David Washington (Denzel’s son) gives a nice, quirky performance as the determined Stallworth, while Adam Driver again delivers on his considerable acting chops as the equally determined, but understandably sheepish colleague who has to hang out amongst the Klan (they are deeply anti-Semitic too).

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There are some cinematic issues with the film – such as a bizarrely pitched pre-credits introduction given by a crazed racist ‘doctor’ played by Alec Baldwin – but this never gets in the way of what Lee is trying to communicate. The Klan are presented as a vile and dangerous but poorly organised, and often nonsensical, bunch of racists who are very clear on their white supremacist ideals. While some may argue that Lee gets bogged down in some pontification and propaganda himself, he justifiably focuses on some of the key and lasting influencers behind racial hatred in the US – things like D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film epic The Birth of a Nation, which still receives praise as a masterpiece to this day, or indeed the dark rhetoric of current loudmouth leaders such as David Duke and Donald Trump, which is commonly amplified through social media, YouTube and Fox News. It is a shocking world sometimes and Lee is there to remind us that. BlacKkKlansman is not the greatest film ever but it is essential viewing.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 3.5/5

One thought on “The Two Reviews: On Chesil Beach and BlacKkKlansman

  1. Robin Stevens says:

    I liked BlackKKKlansman a lot. As you say, it’s very topical and relevant today. Pitched at a time when the KKK were on the way out (Late 60s), and then it ends with the film footage of Charlottesville (2017), and the rise of the re-envigored KKK and similar ilk. I think it offers an important commentary on the rise and the insanity of the New Right in USA.

    Liked by 1 person

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