On Chesil Beach

ON CHESIL BEACH. Starring: Saorise Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, and Anne-Marie Duff. Directed by Dominic Cooke. Check the Rating Classification. 110 min.

This British drama film is written by the author of the book on which it is based, Ian McEwan, who won the Booker Prize in 2007 for his novella, “On Chesil Beach”. The film, like the book, tells the story of a young couple whose marriage is destroyed by fear of intimacy.

Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saorise Ronan), marry in July, 1962. He is a graduate student of history, and she is a young violinist, who leads an amateur string quartet. She comes from a well-to-do family, and he comes from a humbler background. They honeymoon at Chesil Beach in Dorset, UK. The marriage occurs in an era of repression and inhibition in Britain that clashes with an oncoming era of sexual revolution. Edward nervously and clumsily wants their union to be realised physically, and Florence is fearful of contact that is “excessively” intimate.

The film is structured into three parts. The first is the evening meal in the hotel suite, following the marriage. The second is the hesitant, awkward attempts to consummate the marriage in their bedroom after dinner is finished; and the third is their interaction with each other on the sands of Chesil Beach after Florence flees from their room, repulsed by what has happened. Each part conveys apprehension about a relationship not likely to endure. Edward and Florence discover disharmony in their relationship to each other, where nothing that happens means what was intended. Their wedding night is deeply humiliating for them both, and it has tragic consequences. Florence’s speech on the beach to Edward, after she flees from their room, ends the relationship.

McEwan’s novel is incredibly sad and touching, and the fact that he is the writer of the screenplay for the movie means that the novel’s essential impact is preserved. The movie is directed by Dominic Cooke in his first feature film, and he directs the movie sensitively. Cooke makes strong use of flashbacks that establish the couples’ background. There are family difficulties, as well as cultural. Florence’s mother (Emily Watson) is difficult and argumentative, and views any impulse as  requiring proper balance. Edward’s mother (Anne-Marie Duff) is mentally deranged after a tragic accident has left her brain-damaged. There is also a strong hint of family sexual abuse that provides an explanation. They are relevant flashbacks, but they serve to draw away or distract from the emotional upheaval of what happens to Florence and Edward on their wedding night.

The movie powerfully communicates the tragedy of silence. Neither Florence nor Edward are used to sharing real feelings with each other, and the inhibition of their family background prepares them very poorly for their anxieties associated with physically being close to each other. Edward is trapped by false concepts of masculine sexuality, and Florence has no experience of honest communication, or real emotional closeness to the man she says she loves. Both are ill equipped by background, culture, and experience to express the way they feel about each other. Theirs is a repressed love that is heartbreaking, and the film communicates a vision of love that is tragic.

Saorise Ronan is remarkable as Florence. She conveys her emotions subtly through glances that the viewer can recognise, and Edward’s plight is communicated through confusion that the viewer also understands. In the final analysis - and it is a tribute to the film’s direction, and the power of McEwan’s writing - we are left with questions about the real nature of what society chooses to call “love”. True love has to survive societal repression, and be honestly communicative about genuine feelings. The movie, in an interesting departure from the book, leaves the viewer pondering more closely than the book does, the question whether Florence and Edward are totally incompatible, being the persons they are, or whether love between them had a chance. 

This is a film of delicate nuance that is emotionally gripping. Direction and acting are excellent. It  raises questions about the complex nature of love, how society shapes the course it runs, and the need for education in relationship management. Further, it comments meaningfully on the problems that have to be overcome to achieve what love truly means.

Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

Focus Features Films

Festival release, October 28th. General release, April 18th., 2018

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