Standing together on Chesil Beach in the United Kingdom, Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan) come to realize that their respective feelings about sex will prevent them from having a happy marriage.
They’re young and in love, but it’s their wedding night and Florence has no interest in intercourse with Edward. Earlier, over supper, they had their first marital argument over it, followed by some awkward humping, premature ejaculation and anger from both sides. Now they’re on the stone-covered beach coming to grips with a reality that, in 1962, probably should’ve been discussed before marriage.
It’s not good to bottle things up, which is probably good advice for On Chesil Beach, written by Ian McEwan (reuniting with Ronan, who starred in an earlier adaptation of his novel Atonement) and directed by Dominic Cooke.
Edward and Florence start the movie in their honeymoon suite chatting, building up to the moment of consummation. As they talk, the movie flashes back to moments throughout their storybook courtship. Edward is lower-class, Florence is upper. Edward’s mother has brain damage and requires care; Florence’s mother simply expects her daughter to be high-class. The pair bond over their stresses and simply having someone else who understands them and cares for them. It’s pleasant viewing — well, mostly, because the movie takes its time to get to the dark parts, at which point it explodes in a quick burst and then … fizzles.
Advertisements for On Chesil Beach have aired in arthouses for a few weeks and they play up the central conflict of the movie: Florence’s disinterest in intercourse. It’s safe to say her refusal to engage with Edward, his reaction and the fallout are really the central conflict of the movie. The two lead actors are so good it’s a wonder they didn’t just make the whole movie a two-set affair: the bedroom and the beach. The background about their relationship is sweet enough but somewhat irrelevant to the most interesting question, which is how their marriage will work with or without a sexual element, and just what sex means to each of them. As popular culture explores the infinite number of possible sexual orientations, On Chesil Beach promises to potentially deal with asexuality or, at the very least, the fairly common negotiations within a marriage of two people with differing appetites for sex. But it doesn’t quite get there.
The narrative is ultimately concerned with Edward, his “plight” and the attendant lesson, but he’s the less interesting character here — to the point in which sexual molestation is implied in Florence’s history as the reason she is nervous about sex. While the movie’s overall story is about the importance of listening to your loved ones — combined with the problem of a sexually repressive culture that creates an environment where women lack a language for being honest about their bodies, experiences and traumas — this note still felt false to me. In a way, it “excuses” Florence’s refusal of Eddie.
“Why aren’t the pretty people fucking him? He’s such a nice boy,” someone might ask, and instead of saying “Maybe the pretty woman just isn’t interested, is nervous or wasn’t taught,” I guess it’s easier for the story to boil it down to, “Well, she would, but her gross dad touched her and made her not want nice old Edward.”
Had the movie kept itself contained to 1962 and doubled-down on its message about the sexual inequalities and inequities of the era, it might have developed its ideas better, but all of this is exacerbated by the fact that the coda — which follows Edward from 1962 to 1975 and then to 2007 — wraps up the story in such a way that he comes to terms with the love he felt for her, and the fact that ultimately they could have possibly worked out their issues if he’d just been more patient. That’s not a bad lesson for men to learn generally, and maybe the most important one (listen to your partner), but the movie also depicts Florence’s future, indirectly, with such remove that there’s no question she dealt with her trauma (or repressed it … see, we don’t know) and built a life without him in which he wishes he could have taken part. That he wishes. Her story still ultimately serves Edward. The ending is boneheaded.
Ronan and Howe are great in their roles when they have a chance to spar, flirt and emote together. It’s a romantic movie where young love develops and dies in a way that feels natural between the two of them. Once again, if the movie was an intimate movie between the two without all the flashbacks, flash-forwards and implied abuse that feels like a shortcut rather than a character development, it would be a strong period drama about doomed romance. Instead, On Chisel Beach is destined to be a movie watched by fans of the lead actors or perhaps Ian McEwan’s novels or screenplays as a checkmark on a list.