If you were to explain the act of human intercourse to someone to whom the idea was completely foreign, it might sound particularly freakish. With appendages engorging, the body producing strange fluids, and more, the entire notion of sexual relations might seem revolting, or even violent. Living in a point in history where much of the first world is sexually liberated, where conventional relationships are eroding and making way for complex ways of meeting sexual and emotional needs, there is certain bemusement at looking at how men and women tiptoed around sex and their bodies only one or two generations ago. But as presented in “On Chesil Beach,” the clumsy fumbling around sex by those of a certain era is outlined by very real trauma. However, this adaptation of Ian McEwan’s celebrated novella is as awkward at handling its darker themes as its characters are in taking it off and getting it on.
Its the early ‘60s, and Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) are in love, and its the classic case of opposites attract. She’s upper class; her father owns an electronics company, while her mother casually chats with Iris Murdoch on the phone. For her parents, status matters; for Florence, who is pursuing a career in music, far less so. Billy, meanwhile, is working class, helping his father, a primary school headmaster, care for his two sisters and mother, who has been left brain damaged following a freak accident. If that’s not enough, she likes classical music, he loves rock ’n roll. Their meet cute is almost too cute, sparking each others attentions at a meeting of socialists at Oxford that Billy happens to stumble into. They also stumble fast into love, and it’s not too long until they marry. Their wedding night serves as the anchor for the film, as these earnest virgins, slowly and nervously work toward consummating their relationship. But there are delays and hesitations and misunderstandings, and with each pause in what should be an evening of long-awaited passion finally unleashed in a torrent, becomes a series of frank conversations about their past, present and future.
Writing the screenplay and producing the picture based on his own book, McEwan is most effective when capturing the nearly absurd strangeness of two people finally exploring each other physically, only after they’ve been married. First time feature filmmaker Dominic Cooke plays these moments in a comedic register, while attempting to keep a steady hand on the complex layers beneath the surface as Florence and Edward try find the balance between each other and themselves, when it comes to societal expectations and notions of femininity and masculinity. That latter material marks the most intriguing thematic texture, but it’s never quite fully developed. Instead, the narrative flirts with presenting a foundational reason why Florence, in particular, recoils from intimacy, but never lays down a firm answer, leaving the root of her reasoning ephemeral or emotionally irrational. It gives McEwan a narrative trap door; he sidesteps a potentially explosive plot twist, and leaves viewers with something to talk about over dessert after the movie, but it plays like a cheap trick.
All of that adds up into a tonal inconsistency that “On Chesil Beach” never resolves. It’s comedic and even light-hearted in its early going, but so much so, that when it pivots to heavier drama later, the shift nearly tips the picture over. Part of the issue is that Howle overplays Edward’s immaturity. He portrays the character almost as a lummox, who literally kicks and throws rocks during one of the film’s key arguments between Florence and Edward. Ronan, meanwhile, is in a different register all together, but one that’s certainly more rounded than the mode her co-star is operating in. She gives the best performance of the pair, often by considerable measure, and this is thrown into starker contrast by Cooke’s direction, whose theater background betrays him here. Again, that aforementioned scene feels locked to a stage when it should be intensely personal; “On Chesil Beach” makes us consider the lives of the Florence and Edward as outside observers, but rarely takes us inside the complicated mix of desire and fear this pair is trying to untangle.
In fact, as “On Chesil Beach” continues into its final third, the strings of the story are brought full circle into conclusions that are wrapped into neat packages, with the characters falling into wildly different, but binary life decisions. However, for a movie that wants to underscore the messiness of sex and love, and explore the bridge that’s required to unite emotional and physical desires, it’s a disappointment. “On Chesil Beach” ultimately finds happiness in convention, and disappointment in those who try to live differently. While not clearly articulated, there is a strain of conservatism here, as McEwan himself may betray his own bias for those sticking to society’s traditions.
Just as reading a textbook about sex takes all the fun out of it, McEwan and Cooke’s talkative film pulls back its dramatic punch by not leaving the space for the impact felt by Florence and Edwards at the distance that truly stands between them to really resonate. Much like its characters, “On Chesil Beach” always appears ready to go the distance, but acts tentatively when the moment arrives. [C]