As a recent college graduate in a serious monogamous relationship, I was incredibly wary of On Chesil Beach before stepping foot in the theater. Would the story of young love turned sour be too affecting, too real? Could I sleep that night? Saoirse read me like an open book in Lady Bird, a favorite that recently made me weep (once more) on a commercial airline, and I wasn’t sure if I was prepared for that kind of emotional beating again just a week later. Luckily for me, On Chesil Beach can’t hold a flickering candle to the emotional realities of Lady Bird or Atonement, a much more successful adaptation of an Ian McEwan novel.
Stilted, flat and infuriatingly narrow-minded, On Chesil Beach takes its supposedly heartbreaking, interior-focused source material and runs with it in the opposite direction, resulting in a film that’s as unsatisfying as its subjects’ sex life. Although Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle give everything they’ve got, wigs and all, to Dominic Cooke’s directorial debut, their performances aren’t enough to save this wilting period piece from itself.
When I say words like “wilting” and “flat,” you probably picture a pressed-flower-beneath-glass film about a bygone era that’s filled with cliches and sepia tones, something you might enjoy at a matinee with your grandmother and fail to think about again. While On Chesil Beach fully embraces this treacley style in its final act, much of the rest of the film is downright weird, using long takes for comically awkward encounters and pairing bouncy orchestral music with moments of sadness.
It’s hard to know when to laugh, particularly because the subject matter is so bleak: in Blue Valentine fashion, the film shows young English couple Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Howle) struggling to connect and consummate their marriage on their wedding night in 1962, with flashbacks revealing their happy courtship in the years and months prior. But this movie isn’t Blue Valentine, nor is it a blackly comic take on love like The Lobster—it doesn’t seem to know what it is at all. Just as it seems as though we’re about to break into the complex psyches of Florence and Edward—and perhaps get some real commentary on communication and intimacy (or lack thereof)—On Chesil Beach pulls back completely, instructing us to care about this couple but leaving us feeling absolutely nothing.
I typically try to avoid explicit spoilers in my reviews, but so much of my disappointment in On Chesil Beach stems from its botched third act and mishandling of incredibly sensitive material that I feel I need to name specifics. As Florence and Edward finally reach a moment of actual sexual contact—and Florence appears utterly terrified by what’s occurring—it’s implied through brief flashback that she was sexually assaulted by her father at a young age. Her trauma renewed by the sight of Edward’s semen, Florence flees the room and heads to the titular Chesil Beach. Edward follows soon after, and the couple have a marriage-ending argument surrounding Florence’s sexuality. She admits she doesn’t want to have sex, not naming any cause but stating explicitly her desire, and proposes that Edward sleep with other women while remaining married to her, satisfying her emotional needs and his physical ones. He rejects this proposal in disgust, and the two part ways, have their marriage annulled, and never speak to one another again. A series of hackneyed flash-forwards from Edward’s point-of-view, featuring Ronan and Howle in full old-people drag, show Edward “learning his lesson” and regretting losing his one true love over a lack of communication, rigid sexual mores, and a complete lack of empathy for his wife. End scene.
By focusing in on Edward’s life and Edward’s regret, On Chesil Beach turns Florence’s sexuality into some kind of distant, tragic inevitability instead of a legitimate aspect of her. The movie has no interest in Florence’s past trauma, Florence’s suffering as a result of that trauma or Florence’s loss at Edward’s refusal to see through her eyes for even a moment, but only the death of what could have been, the loss of some Great Love that it likes to think its constructed.
As Emily Yoshida puts it, On Chesil Beach “treats a young woman’s sexual preference — in this case, apparent asexuality — as a puzzle to be solved.” Once the mystery is revealed (rather tastelessly, and with little context), all that’s left for us to see is Edward’s moping mug, carried from one decade to the next, obscured by various wigs and prosthetics. By the time the couple sees each once more other in the final scene, Florence performing with her famous quintet and Edward sitting in the audience, it’s hard not to roll your eyes along with the credits.