A deeply serious film about the messiness of first-time sex, or rather, how sex can cause disastrous permanent consequences between naive youngsters, On Chesil Beach is a knife-like psychodrama at its core that slices up painful memories of a lifetime. A salt-sprayed, pebbled shore on the Dorset coast and an airless, over-formal hotel room witness a newlywed couple’s ill-fated honeymoon in the summer of 1962. It’s a time where England is just a measly year removed from the sexual revolution and the unrestrictive Swinging Sixties, but obviously the fear-drenched, repressed (and madly in love) young couple at the film’s center, played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, are painfully unaware of this. Observing them might make you think no one at their age has learned anything about sex before; not from friends or pop-culture, and certainly not from their parents. So what happens when two people who are clearly head-over-heels for each other are perfectly matched in social causes and intellectual pursuits, but sadly can’t converse about erotic desires?
Atonement author Ian McEwan’s screenplay (adapted from his own acclaimed novella) presents one grim scenario on the extreme in a heartbreaking film, exquisitely directed by first-time filmmaker Dominic Cooke. While the handsome couple uncomfortably dines in their suite on unappetizingly overcooked, stale-looking plates of food (presented ceremoniously by awkward staff members, who don’t help with the air of dread) and try their best to ignore their approaching doom, we get served their back-story through controlled portions of flashbacks. A violin virtuoso born into privilege, the liberal-minded Florence Ponting (Ronan) rebels against her domineering, class and prosperity-obsessed parents, and follows her heart through a romantic relationship with the middle-class Edward Mayhew (Howle).
From a contrastingly dissimilar family—his father is a school headmaster and his mother (Anne-Marie Duff) is an artist struggling with brain damage after a freak accident—Edward is an aspiring novelist with immense ambitions. On paper, the two should have everything going right as a couple: they seem to share an analogous view of the world. They support each other’s goals and win over one and other’s families: Florence especially tends to Edward’s mother gently, with genuine affection. But the scary prospect of sex is never addressed between the two during lovely afternoons spent at lazy picnics or nourishing banters about the future. In one scene that starts off with humor (but becomes purposely-unfunny fast), Florence reads one of the plainly worded sex manuals of the era by herself, written almost with a sense of medical severity. Matter-of-factly used words like ‘penetration’, ‘erection’ and ‘blood-flow’ freak her out. She shares her terror of being seen “as a doorway to be entered” with her visibly laxer younger sister only (who’s bound to come of age in a much, much different era). No one else; including the kindly priest who picks up on an unspoken thing that bothers Florence.
Ronan, a once-in-a-generation young actress, brings Florence to life in a wounding performance: she exudes with veiled curiosities, overtaken by apprehension. We can almost hear her soul crumble into pieces even when words fail her, as they plainly do in the bedroom. Howle is equally expressive in Edward’s quiet moments and through the growing battle between his proud masculinity and inexperience. When the two finally slip between the sheets (or in their case, awkwardly place themselves on severely burgundy bedcovers and shams), we might as well be watching the unfolding of a psychological thriller. The shoes stubbornly stay on Edward’s feet; the zipper of Florence’s optimistically turquoise dress gets stuck. (The ingeniously costume-designed garment not only emphasizes Ronan’s panic-stricken blue eyes but also makes the color of the sea seem dramatically misty in comparison.) Unsurprisingly, neither of them manages to act in heated unison. What seals the deal on their ill-fated, short-lived marriage is Edward’s believably horny instincts that kick in before Florence even gears up the courage to plug herself in the moment. Cooke films the entire incident brilliantly, with a sound handle on present-time and flashback toggling. When Florence runs out to the beach in disgust and positions herself against the vast drop of a deserted shore that seems to stretch through infinity, we hurt alongside her and her equally traumatized and ashamed ex-husband-to-be.
Having assumed an understated and stage-like tone up until this point, On Chesil Beach switches gears considerably in the relatively brief second and third chapters and freely spells out the repercussions of those miserable 6 hours of marriage, through future portrayals of Edward and Florence. While this approach might at first seem like a cop-out, these scenes intensify the emotions that came before it, expanding the film’s scope with a dash of welcome, old-fashioned melodrama—the ending especially brings forward a La La Land-level heartache that swells with tearjerking ‘What If’s and ‘If Only’s. In an era where mainstream cinema often makes light of young sex with awkwardly comedic stories, On Chesil Beach almost defiantly rejects to treat this profound topic reductively. A deeply felt, grown-up film, it aches for its fragile characters right from the start and strives to heal the open sexual wounds of anyone that bears them.