Adapted from the novel by Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach is another film that tells the tale of a couple essentially doomed. The film, directed by Dominic Cooke, never reaches beyond its own sense of despair. In its own bizarre way, On Chesil Beach deems to explore sex, feelings about sex, and how it shapes decisions. However, it merely teases it. And while Saoirse Ronan’s performance holds the film together, the story doesn’t go in any distinct direction worthy of its subject matter.
Set in England in the summer of 1962, the story follows Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) as they get to know one another. The film flashes back between the couple’s courtship and their wedding night, which is eventful, to say the least. The pressure of having sex on their wedding night is high, but they hit quite a few bumps along the way. Most of which stem from the awkwardness and need to perform the act of consummation as an obligation rather than a desire.
The flashbacks are mediocre and dull. The real twist ultimately happens on their wedding night, when Florence finally says what’s on her mind and explains her true wants. Edward isn’t pleased and reacts accordingly, but before the film can go anywhere with this new and fresh information, the film takes the safe and easy way out without much acknowledgement of Florence’s point of view after.
Ronan is a strong actress and always digs deep into her characters. However, the screenplay doesn’t afford her much wiggle room to explore much of her character’s life after her wedding night. Beforehand, we can see her trepidation and also her need to want sex as something more than the kind of thing society expects. But after she clears the air and tells Edward the truth about what it is she wants, her story abruptly comes to an end while Edward’s carries on. It’s a missed opportunity to not have explored her life after that fateful night as it was the most interesting part of the movie.
On Chesil Beach is slow-paced and doesn’t seem to strike an interest in its own plot, going about it a bit too methodically, very much like Florence and Edward reacting to their wedding night. Throughout the film, there’s never enough happening to further along the story and the editing doesn’t necessarily employ intrigue beyond what’s happening in the present. The couple comes from very different backgrounds, but this doesn’t create much conflict and Edward’s character development is lacking post-marriage. A lot of time passes and he’s meant to feel guilt and regret over the past, but because it happens near the very end of the film, there isn’t enough time to explore any of it.
On Chesil Beach had a lot of potential. It could’ve delved deeper into societal pressures, sex, and more, but it relied on springing the surprise at the end of the film and leaving there with no real follow-through. Why did Florence feel the way she felt? What happened to her afterward to change her mind and why did she? Why was Edward so regretful and not angry so many years later? None of these things are touched upon and the film unfortunately strings you along for a slow and not very engaging ride before finally revealing the most intriguing information and never expanding on it.
"On Chesil Beach" could’ve delved deeper into societal pressures, sex, and more, but it relied on springing the surprise at the end of the film and leaving there with no real follow-through.