In 1962, a young pair of English newlyweds go to a fancy beachside hotel for their honeymoon. Everything they do not know about life, sex and each other will test them and their relationship, changing their lives forever. This story, including plenty of flashbacks to their courtship, is told in On Chesil Beach (based on the 2007 Ian McEwan novel), a thoughtful account of two people who have been completely unprepared for adult life by their upbringings.
The film stars three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle as Florence and Edward. During their romance, they are smart, caring and very much in love. But in the present day scenes, their inexperience, selfishness and naiveté turn into fear and panic. This is partially explained by the flashbacks, though the actors have to do a lot of the heavy lifting in their performances. The transition is not a wholly smooth one, but the stars make it work well enough.
Saoirse Ronan is quiet and subtle as a woman who was raised to behave in a specific manner. Her family is upper class and it seems as though her parents have been attempting to train her to be a respectful housewife. Ronan is able to convincingly portray someone who hides her feelings so well they are a secret to her.
Billy Howle’s Edward is more outgoing and less sure of what his place is. He seems constantly afraid of being a disappointment to his family, to Florence and to himself. He is from a lower class household where he seems to have been largely ignored. This makes him needy for attention and quick to anger. It is as if they both think they know what an adult is supposed to be, but neither of them knows how to be that.
The honeymoon scenes are particularly complicated because you can see how hard Florence is trying to reconnect with Edward, in an effort to make what they must do easier. It is like she has lost the man she loves and is looking to find him again. There is a moment when she asks him to tell her about the last time he got into a fight. He tells her a story about defending a man he was desperate to impress from an anti-Semite. For him, this is a sad story illustrating his failure to be seen by another person. Florence’s response (sometimes her Dad says mean things about Jews and she does not care for it) shows how disconnected they are from each other at that point.
On Chesil Beach appears to be far more critical of the repressive society they have come from than it is of Florence and Edward. Sex is a totally foreign concept to them. They have no idea how to approach it, talk about it or do it. This is a thought-provoking film focusing on a couple whose marriage is immediately threatened by their own insecurities brought on by the society in which they were raised. It has been carefully written and directed with two very good performances. While not everything comes together, and the ending is a little too emotionally on-the-nose, it is still a compelling portrait of confused young people trying to be grownups.
3½ out of 5
By Ben Pivoz
Ben’s Movie Reviews
Read Ben’s last movie review on Solo: A Star Wars Story.