Directed by: Dominic Cooke. Starring: Billy Howle, Saoirse Ronan, Anne-Marie Duff. Runtime: 1h 50 min. Released: May 18, 2018 (USA release).
On Chesil Beach stars Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan as a couple, Edward Mayhew and Florence Ponting, respectively, on their wedding night in 1962 England as their idyllic romance collides with societal pressure as they inch towards the consummation of their marriage.
There’s a charm to On Chesil Beach that is at first romantic and then very awkward as the couple gears up towards sex for the first time. It’s not played for comedy, but there’s a lite feeling of comedy in the dialogue often (there’s one laugh-out-loud moment as Florence reads a sex guidebook).
The narrative structure is also intriguing here as we are “mostly” with the couple as they’re at a hotel by Chesil Beach and we get flashbacks into their relationship as their romance builds. Some of these flashbacks don’t feel completely necessary so the film occasionally feels slow.
The big thing that keeps it from becoming boring is Saoirse Ronan. Her performances can elevate any film and that’s no different here. She sells the awkwardness and tension in the sex scenes and she also sells the general compassion of her character. The chemistry between her and Billy Howle, who is also very good, shines through any slow pacing.
Howle, by the way, also sells the anxiety of their consummation. I think the best part of the film is the contrast of how charming and free-spirited their romance seems until there’s just the huge anxiety of sex, where they’re both just terrified.
They share great moments together, especially when Florence cares for Edward’s mom, Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff), who suffers from a brain injury. This makes for one of the film’s best moments that shows the difference in their characters: Florence is so genuinely good with people, and Edward often doesn’t know how to deal with his mother’s condition.
The film deals with sensitive subjects, too, as the film eventually inches closer to character studies of these two characters rather than only being about their romance. That’s the most interesting part for me as we learn more about their characters and who they are as people and how the societal pressures make its way into their romance.
The story isn’t always captivating because it arguably feels simplistic. Ronan and Howle’s performances elevate this above its story, especially their romance and their characters. I just didn’t like some character actions and how one decision can shape your life, but if I had read the novel (or novella, if that’s what it’s considered as it’s only 166 pages), I would have liked this better because I would have expected the very real-world third act.
The characters feel realistic throughout though, and that’s why the film is good even if I didn’t love the ending. The dialogue is also very good and a 10-minute conversation on Chesil Beach is the big highlight because that’s when the dialogue is at its finest and the drama is at its sharpest. The film obviously stays true to its source material, too, as Ian McEwan adapts his own novella, and Dominic Cooke brings it to life well in his directorial debut, especially in the beach scene. Nothing makes it feel quite like an “idyllic” romance, though, more than Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, which looks so nice because the locations are so lovely.