The didactic final act feels like a simplistic sermon to be grateful that society no longer embroils itself in treating sex as an inherent taboo.
Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach is, like his most famous novel, a story of florid romance and repression manifested through immaturity and guilt. McEwan adapted his own novel for Dominic Cooke’s film, and the author finds himself reunited with Saoirse Ronan, whose film career jump-started with Atonement. Yet where Atonement filtered its fundamentally blunt treatise on the reverberations of guilt and shame through a sweeping historical melodrama, On Chesil Beach is in a decidedly more minor key, an interior tragedy that foregrounds its underlying social issues. As such, it is a clumsily articulated, too on-the-nose an exploration of dated themes that undermines its attempts at pained drama.
The film leads the audience from its first images, which open with a couple, Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), walking along the titular beach on their honeymoon in 1962. In long shot, Chesil Beach looks idyllic and inviting, uncrowded shoreline overlooking cerulean waters. Close ups of the sand, however, show a preponderance of pebbles, instantly recasting the inviting locale as craggy and difficult to navigate. This is an obvious metaphor for marriage, particularly for these young lovebirds, brought up in the social conservatism and ignorance of the pre-sexual revolution era. When Florence and Edward head back to their hotel room, their anxiety rolls off of them in waves. In a hilarious scene, the hotel’s room service comes to serve the couple dinner and remains in the room for an agonizing amount of time. Florence and Edward, too mortified to speak amorously around strangers, sit silently as the soundtrack blares with the clatter of plates and dishes being constantly removed and placed. When the bellhops finally leave, the couple exhales for what seems like the first time in 20 minutes.
Their anxiety spills out into the structure of the film, which fragments into flashbacks just as the two start to retreat to bed to consummate their marriage. We see how the couple met at university, their wildly different class backgrounds and how each came to love the other. Their respective backgrounds are sketched broadly: Edward’s lower middle-class life is humble and loving, while Florence’s upper-crust family is cold and distant, with her mother (Emily Watson) espousing conservative dogma over the dinner table and flashing general irritation at her eldest daughter’s constant violin practice, hating the presence of noise in her life more than she values her child’s prodigious, acclaimed skill. Much of the young characters’ personality is established through music: Florence, classically trained, fusses over arrangements and her own budding compositions, while Edward keys into the growing wave of rock ‘n roll that will soon explode with the British Invasion, playing Chuck Berry 45s to a mostly bemused Florence.
As straightforward as these glimpses into their lives are, both Ronan and Bowle find moments to add deeper textures to their characters. The film approaches Florence’s terror of sex through tacitly intimated hints of sexual abuse at the hands of her father (Samuel West), but Ronan finds ways to duck around this obvious psychological motive. When discussing Edward at the table one night, Florence pauses momentarily when her father enters and places a hand on her shoulder; Ronan does not overplay the moment, but she puts enough hesitation in Florence’s speech to convey a sudden sense of apprehension. Edward, for his part, displays a complex relationship with his mother, Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff), whose brain damage incurred from a train accident has left her mentally disabled. Edward confides in Florence his relief when he learned that his mother’s condition owed from physical trauma over genetic predisposition, freeing him from the fear of inheriting it. In fact, the film’s tenderest scenes do not involve Edward and Florence’s shows of affection for each other but in how both care for Edward’s mother. This is especially true of Florence, who from her first meeting with a nude, rambling Marjorie, displays such an effortless ability to set the woman at ease while treating her with respect that Edward’s father (Adrian Scarborough) regards her as if magic.
When the film at last comes back fully into the present, we’ve received enough glances at Florence’s hangups about sex to prepare us for the debacle that follows. What might have been an innocently amusing case of first-time jitters, though, explodes with heretofore unseen resentments from the young lovers. The speed with which the two fall into recriminations of the other due to their misunderstandings of sex is frightening, but also sound outlandishly mismatched to the hour we’ve spent seeing firsthand their deep commitment to each other as to seem a narrative contrivance more than an indictment of social repression. Edward in particular turns so nightmarishly toxic as to erase everything previously established about his kind, considerate nature. There’s nothing in all the preceding flashbacks to hint at Edward’s latent chauvinism, which certainly doesn’t negate the possibility of flashing some darker side of himself in sexual anxiety but does feel like a narrative cheat to pivot the text into something more chaotic.
McEwan’s story vaguely recalls another twilight work by a famed author looking back into the mired sexual politics of his youth, namely Philip Roth’s Indignation, made recently into a film of its own. Like On Chesil Beach, Roth’s novel is slight but packed with panic over sexual mores that would seem quaint if not for the profoundly ruinous impact shown on characters. But Roth’s book placed its protagonist’s hangups within a far more complicated web of pressures over Jewish assimilation, American nationalism and even the Cold War specter of the draft. This, in contrast, never expands its social scope beyond social cues it takes for granted. So much care is taken to show how perfect Edward and Florence are for each other that their subsequent fallout lacks the bite of truth, and the didactic final act feels like a simplistic sermon to be grateful that society no longer embroils itself in treating sex as an inherent taboo.