On Chesil Beach
Updated: Feb 6, 2020
In 1962, a young pair of English newlyweds go to a fancy beachside hotel for their honeymoon. Everything they do not know about life, sex and each other will test them and their relationship, changing their lives forever. This story, including plenty of flashbacks to their courtship, is told in On Chesil Beach (based on the 2007 Ian McEwan novel), a thoughtful and moving account of two people who have been completely unprepared for adult life by their upbringings.
The film stars three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as the married couple, Florence and Edward. During their romance, they are smart, caring, brave and very much in love. But in the present day scenes at the hotel, their inexperience, selfishness and naiveté turn into fear and panic. They seem like entirely different people. This is partially explained by the flashbacks, though the actors have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in their performances. The transition is not a wholly smooth one (after the movie, I still had a few questions that were never really answered), but the stars make it work. There is some mystery involved in why the characters are now behaving this way. It cannot have been easy for the leads to make their motivations understandable. Impressively, they mostly do.
Saoirse Ronan is quiet and subtle as a woman who was raised to behave in a specific manner. Her family is upper class and it seems as though her parents have been attempting to train her to be a respectful housewife. Over the last several years, between Brooklyn and Lady Bird, Ronan has established herself as one of the best young actresses working today. She continues to do so in On Chesil Beach with a very difficult role. In order to play this character, she needs to understand what Florence does not. She is able to convincingly portray someone who hides her feelings so well they are a secret to her.
Billy Howle’s Edward, meanwhile, is more outgoing and less sure of what his place is. He seems constantly afraid of being a disappointment to his family, to Florence and to himself. He is from a lower class household where he seems to have been largely ignored. This makes him needy for attention and quick to anger. It is as if they both think they know what an adult is supposed to be, but neither of them knows how to be that.
The honeymoon scenes are particularly complicated because you can see how hard Florence is trying to reconnect with Edward, in an effort to make what they must do easier. It is like she has lost the man she loves and is looking to find him again. There is a moment when she asks him to tell her about the last time he got into a fight. He tells her a story about defending a man he was desperate to impress from an anti-Semite. For him, this is a sad story illustrating his failure to be seen by another person. Florence’s response (sometimes her Dad says mean things about Jews and she does not care for it) shows how disconnected they are from each other at that point.
The screenplay was written by Ian McEwan himself. I have not read his novel, so I cannot speak to the faithfulness of his adaptation. What I can say is that he is reasonably tender with these characters. On Chesil Beach appears to be far more critical of the repressive society they have come from than it is of Florence and Edward. Sex is a totally foreign concept to them. They have no idea how to approach it, talk about it or do it. This is established early on using the body language of the actors. Edward is the aggressor, while Florence is clearly the more uncomfortable of the two. Consummating their marriage on their honeymoon is something they feel pressured to do and terrified of. It introduces a tension absent in the scenes of them falling in love.
On Chesil Beach (105 minutes without the final credits) is a thought-provoking film focusing on a couple whose marriage is immediately threatened by their own insecurities brought on by the society in which they were raised. It has been carefully written and directed with two very good performances. While not everything comes together, and the ending is a little too emotionally on-the-nose, it is still a compelling portrait of confused young people trying to be grownups.
3½ out of 5
Saoirse Ronan as Florence Ponting
Billy Howle as Edward Mayhew
Emily Watson as Violet Ponting
Anne-Marie Duff as Marjorie Mayhew
Samuel West as Geoffrey Ponting
Adrian Scarborough as Lionel Mayhew
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Screenplay by Ian McEwan