On Chesil Beach. Directed by Dominic Cooke. Starring Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle. Rating: 6 (out of 10)
Sex sells, as we all know, and it’s absolutely impossible to get through the day without being reminded of it: on the radio, on TV, in the checkout line at the grocery store.
We need to hearken back, then, to the time when the act itself was a huge source of stress and misery for generations of brides – and yes, bridegrooms too – before the sexual revolution gave us a whole new vocabulary and put sex in the fore forevermore.
On Chesil Beach, based on the novel by Ian McEwan (who also wrote the screenplay), tells a love story over almost as soon as it begins thanks to wedding-night fear and misinformation in 1962 England.
We meet the couple on their wedding night. Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) meet at a ban-the-bomb rally in Oxford shortly after exams. They are separated by that great divide, class: Florence is posh, an exacting musician – violinist in a quartet – and her daddy has a boat and a tony club membership. Edward’s life, in contrast, is something of a shambles: his schoolteacher father (Adrian Scarborough) can barely control his mad wife, assigning Edward’s young twin sisters much of the work; the home is like a midden.
Despite all, they seem compatible enough. “I think you must be the squarest person in all of civilization,” teases Edward, when Florence describes the new rock n’ roll sounds of Chuck Berry as “merry.” Edward plans to write history books; Florence has high ambitions for her quartet. It’s easy to picture a comfortable home and discussions about art and music in their future.
But there is no common ground in the bedroom, apparently. They spend an awful lot of time not talking about sex: Edward is keen but unschooled; the only naked woman he has seen is his mother (an excellent Ann-Marie Duff), brain-damaged after an accident years before. And Florence is terrified, perhaps due to the overly-clinical descriptions in the textbook she read and the absence of guidance from her frosty mother (Emily Watson) but unfortunately it’s more likely to be because of some implied sexual abuse by her father (Samuel West) when Florence was young.
It’s agonizing to watch these virgins make their slow journey to the bed and to a not-entirely-unpredictable event that alters both their lives forever. All this awkwardness and corked-up desire is first quaint, then catastrophic. Florence storms out of the seaside hotel room and the newlyweds have their first fight out on Chesil Beach, a thin, scenic pebbly strip of a beach in Dorset.
It shows a marriage that only lasts six hours. For the groom, the question of why is never answered, but he feels instinctively that it’s his fault.
The action moves to 1975, with an only slightly more confident Edward musing about his past mistakes; then on to 2007, where we have the misfortune of seeing our young couple in old-people prosthetics and a hammily wrapped-up ending that spoils all that preceded it.
Sean Bobbitt, director of photography on Shame and 12 Years A Slave, makes the most of the scenery, framing his wide shots like works of art: Florence’s azure-blue dress pops in sharp contrast to the beach and the grey sky.
Saoirse Ronan is the better-known actor and elevates everything she appears in, but Billy Howle is the star here. His character is an emotional wreck thanks to the stress and shame of his upbringing, and Howle conveys ignorance, awkwardness and anger in just the right amounts to keep us from disliking him. (He and Ronan are also currently starring alongside each other in The Seagull).
The screenplay and the film languished for years, bouncing between directors and production companies before alighting on stage director Dominic Cooke, making his feature film debut with On Chesil Beach. The delay may have had something to do with the tone: if sex sells, a movie blaming sex for the ruination of a perfectly good love story is a hard sell indeed.