Ian McEwan is an author whose work focuses on the intricacies and nuances of relationships, particularly in eras where communications between couples was hindered by convention. The 2007 adaptation of his novel Atonement perfectly captured the silent agreements between people and how silence can destroy a relationship before it starts. McEwan’s first turn as screenwriter, adapting himself no less, On Chesil Beach is a similar romantic tragedy focusing on gender discrepancies. Leading lady Saorise Ronan can do no wrong, but the script’s focus on what it knows – straight white men – ends up causing the film to suffer irreparable damage.
Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew (Ronan and Billy Howle, respectively) meet and fall in love in 1962 England. They quickly marry, but their wedding night leaves they coming to painful realizations about the other that threaten to end their romance.
In an opening that looks inspired by the works of Ernest Hemingway, McEwan introduces the audience to Florence and Edward in medias res. We know they’re a young couple who, based on the wedding ring on Florence’s finger, are recently married. She tells Edward, “if we have a baby, I want to name her Chloe,” implying this wasn’t a shotgun wedding. Yet it’s impossible not to note the awkwardness between them, the hesitancy, and the fact that they’re sharing information about their families you’d assume a couple together long enough to get married would already know. McEwan and director Dominic Cooke use this beginning as a launchpad to go back in time, showing who these two are before they became united in marriage.
We’ve seen this story before about the couple who probably got married too quickly. Florence and Edward have a very brief courtship, shown and it’s immediately understood that they, to use the cliche, come from different worlds. Edward is a working class boy whose mother (an always reliable Anne-Marie Duff) suffers from brain damage and memory loss; Florence comes from wealth and privilege but her parents are controlling. What McEwan is more interested in is using the concept of “love” as a means of discussing sexual intimacy. Is it necessarily enough to love someone if their sexual needs, or lack of them, aren’t on the same wavelength with the other?
This manifests on the banks of Chesil Beach itself. Florence and Edward are meant to be celebrating their wedding night, but can’t get comfortable. They’re watched by waiters during their romantic dinner and almost immediately their differences pop up; Florence isn’t hungry and wants to go to the beach, Edward wants to consummate their union right then and there. Interspersed between flashbacks of their romance is the couple’s attempts to have sex. And where moments like these tend to have the choreography and perfection of a ballet, On Chesil Beach showcases a couple’s first sexual encounter with all the messy, frightening apprehension you’d expect. It is in these moments that the two leads do their best work, and show more of their character’s personalities than comes off in actual dialogue exchanges.
Howle and Ronan were previously paired together in the overwrought adaptation of Anton Chekov’s The Seagull, and where they were felt fake (Ronan) and blase (Howle), here they’re livelier. Howle’s goofy grin and need to ask if Florence is comfortable are endearing, yet belie his tendency to lash out when he’s embarrassed or too sexually hungry to care about his new wife’s feelings. Ronan conveys all the paralyzing fear of virginity, knees closed and haunted by the shame that young girls have been taught to fear about sex.
It’s almost a shame that McEwan decides to focus on Edward, especially into the third act when the film demands a singular point-of-view, because Florence is the more interesting character. Edward is a perfect representative of the Nice Guy – the male who believes he’s owed something, usually sex, because he’s so polite – and though you see how he internalizes masculinity, particularly in watching how Florence is treated by her father, it isn’t the right route to take in a film where the female is receiving a totally different message about sex. For Edward, sexual conquest is something to be praised, and though Edward wants to be sensitive to Florence’s concern, the need to get off trumps everything and that’s a story we’ve seen in many movies.
It is in Florence that something more haunting comes through. Ronan captures the female’s interest in sexuality, particularly in 1962; she looks at her changing body in lingerie, a scene immediately followed by her talking to a priest (or trying to) about her feelings. Upon reading a sex manual that medically describes the process of penetration, Florence becomes repulsed by sex itself. Her reasons why certainly sound like they came from the mind of a man who needs to explain some reason why a woman would hate sex – I mean, it can’t be because of anything other than perversion or violence, which is unfortunate. By the time the couple have the argument over sex, your sympathy isn’t with Edward at all, yet he is where the camera and script choose to go.
The third act does get a bit hammy. The minute people start appearing in old age makeup it’s time for the credits to roll. The problem by this point is that the film becomes about Edward’s regret, not Florence’s life which is alluded to be far more chaotic and damaging. It’s akin to showing The Way We Were from Robert Redford’s perspective – seeing a man regret being rude to a woman who did nothing wrong but be complex and have issues. Who wants that at the end of the day?
On Chesil Beach proves Ronan is able to hold the burden of even the weakest script on her shoulders, but it could have been a better film overall if told from her perspective. The tale is familiar yet could have looked deeper into the repressed lives of women had it bothered to.