Film Review: On Chesil Beach

A close-to-exquisite film about an unconsummated marriage that ultimately disappoints, despite an original topic, fine acting and a palpable sense of England in the early 1960s.
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The end is trivializing and there’s one central narrative gap. Nonetheless, On Chesil Beach is an almost-perfect film made all the more impressive in light of its seemingly non-transferable source, Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella. Like so many of McEwan’s works, it traces his characters’ deeply private journeys in the wake of twist-of-fate moments that inform the trajectory of their lives.

Secrets, lies, guilt, and shame are thematic motifs. Many of McEwan’s novels are set in time frames on the cusp of massive cultural upheaval (think Atonement, The Innocent, Solar, Saturday) and economic-social class defines character.

On Chesil Beach, marking theatre director Dominic Cooke’s film debut, incorporates all of the above elements, but is especially striking for its rarely explored topic: two virgins on their wedding night who are unable to consummate their marriage.

Admittedly, The Family Way tackled the subject in 1966. Remember that feel-good rom-com? It starred Hayley Mills and Hywel Bennett as newlyweds incapable of sealing the deal until weeks later, tension building, they have a great big fight leading to a mutual face-slapping session and bingo, torrid lovemaking. All is well.

In On Chesil Beach, the bridegroom is an inexperienced klutz, but more to the point, the bride is simply repelled by the prospect of a sexual encounter and that’s probably not going to change through gentle (or not-so-gentle) persuasion. More on that later.

Set in 1962, a netherworld of ’50s conservatism with vague rumblings of counterculture protest encroaching, the story recountsEdward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Pointing’s (Saoirse Ronandreadful first night together in a genteel motel alongside Chesil Beach in Dorset. Flashbacks uncovering tidbits of backstory are interspersed throughout.

A working-class lad, and a little rough around the edges, Edward is a grad student in history setting his sights on a career as an author/scholar. Florence hails from a condescending upper-crust family—they’re well-versed in table etiquette and know what wines to order—headed by a stern patriarch (Samuel West) and judgmental mom (Emily Watson) who refers to her daughter’s violin playing as “screeching.” Florence is in fact a talented and ambitious violinist who leads an amateur string quartet in addition to being a top-notch college student. Her biggest pleasure in life is her classical music.

Edward and Florence meet at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) event at Oxford and are immediately drawn to each other; their mutual attraction grows during the “courtship” phase. Marriage is the next logical step, given the mores of the era. But matrimony has no flesh-and-blood reality for either of them. It’s an amorphous institution embodying respectability, maturity and freedom—for Florence, freedom from her family; for Edward, sexual freedom, the opportunity to consummate their relationship.

Up until their fateful honeymoon night, physical contact has been limited to a few chaste kisses as Florence demurely averts Edward’s advances. It’s open to interpretation but arguably she is seriously turned off, not simply playing the expected coy role. I believe Edward is correct when he blurts out that she’s unavailable and always was. The novel suggests as much, though the movie fudges it, intimating that her sexual distaste would be overcome if only Edward showed some patience and compassion. It’s a lost opportunity in storytelling. The former spin—a sexually disinterested Florence—is so much more compelling. In an odd way it gives her agency, making her the driving force in a narrative usually defined by the man, as it is here.

Throughout the wedding-night ordeal, Florence is thinking about rehearsing with her quartet. It’s easy to surmise that as a musician, unlike a newlywed, she feels competent and in control. But that’s reductive. Perhaps her impulse to be elsewhere is not a hedge against sexual repulsion and/or fear of the unknown, but rather a genuine desire to be a performer, not a wife. I wish that had been leaned on a bit.

One nice scene in the film (that does not appear in the novel) shows her expressing very real doubts about her upcoming nuptials in a conversation with her minister. And equally telling, she offers Edward the opportunity to find sexual partners elsewhere. The idea offends him, though later in life he wonders if he failed to see her implied love in the offer. It’s not as clear to me that she’s indicating love, even if in her troubled state she believes she is.

Spoiler alert: The wedding night ends in a permanent breakup and the next few decades are telescoped in flash-forwards. Edward’s life is marred by a series of go-nowhere relationships and jobs. For a while he runs a two-bit record store. Without Florence he has become ambitionless, a casualty of the late ’60s. He berates himself for letting her get away and the loss haunts him over a lifetime. By contrast, Florence has moved on.

And here’s where the film takes a major misstep. In the novel we’re told Florence has had an impressive career as a violinist but we learn nothing about her personal life. And that works perfectly, leaving the door open to conjecture: Either she’s never found true love or, more provocative and probable, she never sought it and for the most part is content with her life.

In the movie’s mawkish turn of events (that’s also conveniently coincidental), Edward encounters a little girl in his record store who turns out to be Florence’s daughter. Florence has had a career and family, everything Edward has failed to achieve. It’s manipulative and, worse, banal in unabashedly dramatizing conventional notions of happiness for a woman. It also drives home the idea that the fault in their relationship was Edward’s. Since there’s really nothing “wrong” with Florence—her subsequent life proves that—the defeat is his. That’s his belief in the novel too, but McEwan gives the reader permission to see it as delusional. It’s too bad he didn’t have the courage of his convictions in his screenplay that are so resonant in the book.

Nonetheless, the film is exquisite on many fronts, starting with Howle’s terrific portrayal of a smitten, unschooled yokel vulnerable to the core; Ronan is also excellent evoking an unhappy bride caught between the demands of fine breeding and her realization that the time for secrets is over. In 1962, unvarnished truth-telling was not yet in vogue. The smaller roles are well played too: Watson as an imperious snob; Anne-Marie Duff as Edward’s mother, a formerly brilliant artist who is now brain-damaged thanks to a freak accident. Likewise, Adrian Scarborough makes Edward’s gentle-hearted, hard-working father a three-dimensional figure.

One sour acting note is Samuel West in a tennis match with Edward, where he shows himself to be a savagely competitive alpha male that borders on parody. It’s not West’s fault: The character is conceived as caricature.

This is Cooke’s first time at bat and despite some serious flaws he grasps cinematic language, from his use of pulsating ’60s music as an aural backdrop (compliments of Dan Jones) foreshadowing the seismic changes that are looming, to his narrative drive and sense of time and place. An example: Florence and Edward’s awkward honeymoon dinner. While the newlyweds desperately try to be conversational with each other in an effort to camouflage their bottomless discomfort, the waiters exchange crude, knowing glances; it’s all comic and naughty when indeed it’s neither.

More striking is the extraordinary natural setting of Chesil Beach, a long stretch of isolated, wind-swept shoreline that functions as a cruel and haunting contrast to the romance-free young couple. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt deserves credit too. The scene is at once elegiac and a testimonial to waste.

Still, the final few moments are unforgivable. Now into the 21st-century, Florence is playing her farewell performance while Edward sitting up close watches her. They are quite elderly (makeup is not subtle); their eyes meet and swell with tears of recognition and regret. This ham-fisted coda had no place here.

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