On Chesil Beach

4 mins read

One might imagine that any movie written by Ian McEwan based one of his novels and starring Saoirse Ronan would be a high-toned, psychologically complex and absorbing trip. Yet in the case of On Chesil Beach, one would be wrong.

In a tedious misfire, impeccable technique and good performances can’t save a doomed love story—or more pointedly, a psychological mystery—so detached and airless it seems surprising that McEwan, that most expert purveyor of human psychology and period, wrote the screenplay from his own 2006 novel.

Picture opens in 1962 Dorset with newlyweds Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Ronan) arriving at a quaint Chesil Beach hotel for what promises to be a picture-perfect honeymoon weekend.  Something is immediately amiss, though, and it’s more than the poor cuisine and shoddy service of the hotel waitstaff.  The couple is polite, sweet and attentive. Intimacy is another matter.

Flashbacks reveal Edward’s tenure at University College London, where he’s brash graduate student studying history and developing a passion for music, notably Chuck Berry. He’s from a troubled background of sorts, with a mentally unbalanced artist mother (Anne-Marie Duff) and father (Adrian Scarborough) of no real means.

This all changes when he meets string quartet pro Florence, and their respective families are a study in contrasts. She’s the quintessential, unattainable good girl from an outwardly successful home, with a haughty, Oxford academic mother (Emily Watson) and arrogant, capitalist father (Simon West), both dismissive of Edward’s standing and suspicious of his motivations.

This doesn’t stop Florence from falling for him and his family for her—she helps his mother achieve a modicum of peace—and before long the pair are betrothed. But the wedding is where happiness ends, because Florence has no interest, and is markedly terrified, of any sensuality, leaving her doting husband befuddled.

It’s a stilted era before rock-n-roll, the sexual revolution and the swinging 60s, and one where obedient wives did their husband’s bidding, so Florence’s revulsion at the idea of intimacy and her inability to talk about such things creates an immediate rift. Both virgins, neither has experience in matters of the flesh or the heart and neither can articulate the problem, try as Florence might in a beachside non-confessional where she proposes a progressive workaround to their dilemma.

Director Dominick Cooke has made an appropriately handsome—and at times, appropriately dreary—movie about the minutiae of its characters shifting emotions at the expense of much actual narrative momentum.  The key point of contention here beyond the class differences, which are textbook drawn, is the tension of whether the marriage will be consummated.  This goes on for an inordinate amount of time and by the time the source of Florence’s disinterest is revealed, we’ve already guessed it.

Then, surprisingly, the decades-later third act unspools with maudlin dollops in direct contrast to the established tone, adding unearned sentiment to a decidedly cold picture.

This will not be remembered as one of Ronan’s better roles and though no fault lies with the actress, whose contemporary and period performances are note perfect, the character simply isn’t interesting—or penetrable—enough to merit such close consideration.

Howle fares better, and his puppy dog courtship, disbelief at his bride’s “frigid” demeanor and later, his regrets, among the film’s few affecting moments.

But On Chesil Beach there is no mistaking the lifelessness of the central relationship, which no amount of polished craft or pedigree can overcome.

2 stars.

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