As I was watching the trailers before The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society a while ago, I noticed a trailer for the film On Chesil Beach, which I initially (unfairly) dismissed as a dull, unimaginative period romance. In retrospect, I can now see that this was due to how the trailer was edited, needing to leave out moments from the film that may not be considered 12A. This unfortunate marketing choice was certainly to the trailer’s detriment, as the film is an incredibly raw exploration of England’s culture of sexual repression, across class and time. Florence Ponting and Edward Mayhew are young newlyweds deeply and naively in love, until their struggle to consummate the marriage on their wedding night threatens to tear them apart.
This plotline is only the framing device for establishing each character via flashback, sometimes together and sometimes apart, with director Dominic Cooke nailing the pacing. While the romantic flashbacks are vibrant in colour and often take place against extensive extreme wide shots of the stunning English summer countryside, the scenes alone are colder and claustrophobic, highlighting the crushing weight of their lives without the other. The honeymoon is certainly not joyful though, the lack of a soundtrack and the agonising way that every little sound in the room is brought to attention creating an unbearably awkward and effective atmosphere.
This structure also has the effect of making the movie a study of the two characters, each as three dimensional and well crafted as the other. We grow to learn their likes and dislikes, their mannerisms and motivations, to the extent where when you are brought back to the current tension of their situation you truly feel for each of them and desperately root for their relationship to overcome these sexual barriers. This film also shoots sex like no other, magnifying excruciating details like a caught zipper and shaking hands to make the act seem as unappealing and uncomfortable to the audience as it is to the protagonists. Bad sex usually serves as a source of humour; here it fuels the tragedy.
A clear standout of the film that managed to enliven even the misleading trailer was the performance of Saoirse Ronan, who almost echoes Catherine Deneuve in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and at this point can seemingly do no wrong. Whilst Billy Howle is undeniably charming as Edward, it is Ronan as Florence that steals every scene, striking a perfect balance between kindness and coldness towards her loving partner, and infusing each subtle action with a sense of desperation and anxiety. Going from Lady Bird to this, she is essentially a chameleon.
Set immediately before the sexual revolution, On Chesil Beach perfectly encapsulates the various English attitudes to sexuality at a tense tipping point, forcing the viewer to wonder whether their relationship could have avoided these issues by beginning even a few years later. Regardless, this feeling of lost potential and emotional clumsiness permeates the narrative, and leaves you with a feeling of mourning that truly reflects the tone of the film. I would highly recommend to anyone who can stomach a few awkward moments in a film without feeling queasy, and to those who believe that Saoirse Ronan could be our generation’s Audrey Hepburn.