“ On Chesil Beach” is a not so unusual story about a six-hour marriage. If you ask friends if they know of any marriages that did not survive the honeymoon most can name two. Try it. What is unusual about the novelist’s Ian McEwan’s screenplay is that it reorders how we think about love.
The film begins with calm seaside views and rather disjointed music. We think the pebble beach scene and the rock and roll tempo don’t match. Alas, neither do the expectations of the virginal Eddie and Flo.
In a series of flashbacks, memory pieces, we are introduced to two young Oxford students, their love at first-site encounter, and their family histories. The build-up is too slow, but the personalities of both Edward’s artist mother ( Anne-Marie Duff) and Florence’s teacher/father ( Samuel West ) add emotional nuances that are intriguing as we watch our protagonists circumvent and effectively deal with difficult parents and middle and upper-class divides.
In a time frame beginning with the early nineteen sixties and touching on 1975, thirteen years later, and then 2007, thirty-two years later, we get to surmise the onward progression of our characters’ lives and of their regrets.
Award-winning theatrical director Dominic Cooke directs his first feature film with “On Chesil Beach”. His entire cast, at the top of their game, show 1962 sexual repression and cultural conformity in re-robing nakedness, in marking cricket lines, and in turning music pages one corner at a time. Rules shine in the piece: spontaneity be damned.
Help is offered. The minister tries to get Flo to voice her fears; Edward’s father tries to engage his distraught son. Actors Saoirse Rowan and Billy Howle are brilliant in showing how sexual fears of inadequacy impede physical intimacy. A sense of humor is not something that comes easily for neophytes in any new endeavor.
Innocence and inexperience are a given, but Flo’s problem-solving solution is most frustrating. How can she say she is no good at something she has never tried? How can she be so incurious and unventuresome when it comes to her own body and that of her chosen lover? I did not register any abuse or past trauma in McEwan’s screenplay, yet what else could it be? Could the rather clinical sex manual she references be that traumatizing?
For all her charms, Saoirse Rowen has a difficult time making us take her side. Her extreme sense of control even to the point of strongly suggesting that she remove her own stockings, was more pathetic than funny. While Billy Howle had all my sympathy with his fumblings, an older man sitting behind us emoted, “ It’s about time!” in pure disgust and frustration. Other viewers will recall their own “first time”, and it is here that the film succeeds. “On Chesil Beach” succeeds in not in showing fumbled touching, but in orchestrating truly touching scenes.
We see Howle and Saoirse sharing the events that made them feel like independent movers in the world, grown-ups. For Flo, it was buying her own single train ticket at thirteen; for Eddie, it was defending a Jewish friend from racist remarks. We hear the kind, but uppity, Flo tell how Eddie is not like anyone she has ever met. “He knows birds, always has a history book in his pocket and a pencil stub…and does not know a beignet from a croissant.”
If Florence’s mother thinks Ed is a “ bit of a country bumpkin”, Ed thinks Flo is a tad “ square” with her classical music. He is an “rock and roll” enthusiast. Their courtship does not seem stilted, yet there are dating episodes where everybody is making out at the movies, but them. They share goals, and there is a wonderful Mozart piece where octave changes are taught. In their physical relationship, Flo understands that Ed is always advancing, and she is always backing away. Yes, Florence looks mildly terrorized, but more priggish. Ed is still recoiling from two waiters laughing at him, but can still ask, “ What is it, darling?” when Flo hesitates with “ it sort of tickles”. Flo ends up running two miles down the beach.
Edward flaring temper leads to one of the most painful honeymoon arguments ever seen, thus our title, “On Chesil Beach”. Verbal stones are thrown. “It was unfair of you to run out like that!” She responds with how “ unpleasant and revolting” it all is. And a great octave leap has a humiliated man making a decision he will later come to rue.
The ending of this film seems improbable and a tad manipulative, yet it gets the emotion that it wants from the audience. Could patience have saved the day? Five kids with the cello player seems like he might have a technique down. We wish Ed had ten children in tow.