Newlyweds find true unhappiness in On Chesil Beach

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

On Chesil Beach
Roxy Film Theatre

Opens June 8
2.5 out of 5

Even if you haven’t read the book on which this drama is based on, Ian McEwan’s authorship should clue you in: On Chesil Beach is a downer. This is not an assessment of the quality of the film, but of McEwan’s ability to turn human foibles into tragedies. Take a look at other film adaptations of his work: Atonement, Enduring Love, The Comfort of Strangers. Heck, he even killed young, cute Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son.

On Chesil Beach is not as dark but it’s about as disheartening. In the early days of the Sexual Revolution, a young British couple goes on a honeymoon to the aforementioned tourist hub. It’s supposed to be a joyous occasion, but the newlyweds carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. Florence (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird) is a well-off, socially conscious heiress with a history of abuse she has buried deep in her mind, but it’s itching to come out. Edward (Billy Howle, The Seagull), the groom has spent most of his youth focused on scholarly pursuits, a distraction from the demands that come from caring for his mentally ill mother. Florence and Edward are very much in love, but have not engaged in physical affection. The consummation of the marriage weighs heavily on both and, ill-equipped to deal with the barrage of new emotions that come with sex, they flounder spectacularly.

Even though the setup is theatrical (most of the action takes place in an hotel room and the beach in question), director Dominic Cooke (The Hollow Crown) succeeds at opening up the film while keeping the drama constrained. Through flashbacks, we get a full picture of how two fundamentally decent people find themselves in this situation. The rolling devastation covers past, present and future, and has a power only lessened by the terrible old-people-makeup at the end.

There are two messages On Chesil Beach gets across. First: saving oneself until marriage is a terrible idea (sure, it’s hardly an issue now, but it’s hard to fathom the number of couples stuck with bad sex through history because of shame). Second: youthful blunders can have long-lasting effects that can only be lessened by the ability to forgive yourself.

Never mind the discomfort: On Chesil Beach is worth checking out.