On Chesil Beach Exudes Quiet Tragedy

Directed by Dominic Cooke
Bleecker Street Media, 110 minutes, R (some nudity, sexual situations)

Two things are obvious in watching On Chesil Beach: Saoirse Ronan is one helluva of an actress and Ian McEwan says more in a novella than lesser writers manage to utter in their doorstop tomes. This scant story manages to tear at our heartstrings through a slow simmer rather than a raging boil. It is a tragic tale that relies on two of the saddest scenarios imaginable. What if you met the right person, but at the wrong time? What if a couple was perfect for each other—except for one thing about which neither knew anything at all?

Florence Ponting (Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) meet at Oxford and are immediately drawn to each other because they are unlike their peers. She is the haute bourgeoisie offspring of a tyrannical industrial titan father and a toffee-nosed mother, with only younger sister Violet (Emily Watson) to lend support. She is both terrified of and resents her father—and the film hints there might be something more sinister in the deep background—but she is like him in one respect: she is driven. Florence is an aspiring classical violinist with an ear for perfection.  

Edward couldn’t be more different, starting with the fact that he likes rock n’ roll. His father is a schoolmaster and his mother (Anna-Marie Duff) is brain-damaged from a freak accident, a condition sometimes made manifest by walking about topless and smeared with pigment as she dabbles in painting and collage. And you can forget basic housekeeping. Unlike Florence, Edward has no one for emotional support. He is as shy as Florence is driven, but both are oddballs when they find each other at Oxford—he because he has to reinvent himself as a sophisticate without any guidance; she because she’s bored by pretense and is far more sensitive than her peers.

Here’s where timing enters into the equation. It’s 1962 when they graduate and marry. The film’s major action—such as it is—takes place on the film’s namesake Dorset beach where the newlyweds have gone to honeymoon. “English” and “beach” are pretty much an oxymoron. Director Dominic Cooke uses the idyllic isolation of Chesil Cove, its walking-challenged pebbled beaches, an abandoned seaward-facing fishing boat, and the slate gray of the English Channel and its skies to suggest that Florence and Edward now face a blank slate future that lacks clear direction. Everything about the honeymoon is a disaster—starting with the fact that the marriage will be immediately annulled, as neither has the slightest idea of how to consummate it.

The tragedy is palpable. As we see in flashbacks, Florence and Edward truly care for each other. Theirs is a 1962 misfortune, with Florence unsure of what it might mean to be a woman as well as a brilliant musician, and Edward trapped by 1950s misinformation on how to be a man. They are, literally, out of place out of time—too young to be married, and premature insofar as what lurks on the horizon: the sexual frankness of the later 1960s. The story does get ragged toward the end, as the script—also penned by McEwan—departs from the novella’s sequencing and gives us rather maudlin and less convincing vignettes from 1975 and 2007. But we get the point; destiny gets in the way of what should have been destined.

By now you’re probably thinking that this movie sounds more like a play. You are right to a point; On Chesil Beach requires patience. It is not about action; it is about bruised interiors, damaged psyches, and unfortunate circumstance. Such a film requires top-drawer acting and gets it. Howle hits most of the right notes as a man-shaped boy handed a set list of expectations for being a grown-up, but not the wisdom to evaluate what makes sense versus what is rubbish. Ronan is even more spectacular; she is, at turns, as delicate as a spring flower and precociously independent, even when the latter means being emotionally distant. Her performance during the seduction-gone-wrong scene practically personifies the death of innocence.

On Chesil Beach won’t give you adrenaline-rush thrills. It goes one step further; it will break your heart.

Rob Weir

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