There is a simplicity in the beauty of Dominic Cooke‘s period drama, “On Chesil Beach.”
The film, which Ian McEwan adapted from his own 2007 novella, is a snapshot of the lives of Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle). It is England in 1962, and these newlyweds spend a long, awkward evening in their honeymoon suite. It is before the sexual revolution and Florence and Edward dance timidly around the expected consummation of their new marriage.
As the hours’ march on, the tension becomes more palpable. Edward grows more desperate and Flo more afraid. They both know what is expected of them. He is ready. She is not.
Juxtaposed with all of this are flashbacks to their courtship. Sweet memories of this unmatched pair, finding each other when their social standings should have prevented such a meeting. She is the daughter of a wealthy man, and he is the son of a lowly elementary school principal.
Ronan and Howle are both perfectly cast in their respective roles. It is as if McEwan had them both in mind when he drafted the characters. And perhaps, at least for Ronan’s Florence, there could possibly be some truth to that. After all, her first Academy Award nomination came for her performance as 13-year-old Briony Tallis in the adaptation of the author’s “Atonement.”
As the evening wears on, Florence and Edward are plagued by a number of interferences. Two particularly irritating—though amusing— bellmen seem bent on keeping things awkward. The mood declines. Other issues rise to the surface. We learn more about Florence and her family, and we start to learn exactly why she is so terrified of sex.
And that is where the film’s central issue lies. It isn’t enough to say that she was raised in a repressive society, or that she has Christian morals. No, instead, McEwan is intent on giving her the go-to explanation for any woman’s “frigidity”—past history of sexual abuse. Sexual assault and abuse are far too common in the world, but too many male writers use it as the default. It shows a lack of imagination, or of an understanding the complexity of the female experience. We see it time and again, that any good or bad a woman does in life can be directly correlated to some abuse in her past. Yes, it’s true that the statistics are staggering. But it is not the only explanation for the female behavior, and turning it into a cliché hurts the cause, rather than helping empower survivors.
But this is one piece of a better whole. Dominic Cooke brings his theater background to this big screen debut. He cut his teeth on the BBC miniseries “The Hollow Crown,” but his work in the theater made him a perfect choice to direct this film. In many ways, it feels very stage friendly. Long segments of conversation, lingering moments between the loving couple. It would all translate nicely to a stage. And yet, it plays out beautifully onscreen. Cooke allows the scenes and the actors to breathe. To use the space around them.
This is aided by beautiful cinematography from Sean Bobbitt. Having worked on such films as “12 Years a Slave” and “Queen of Katwe,” Bobbitt brings with him an understanding of how to capture close, intimate, sometimes humiliating moments, as well as sweeping, lovely, happy times.
“On Chesil Beach” is both a lovely story and a heartbreaking one. Ronan and Howle bring such strength and depth to their performances that you can’t help rooting for them. Even when they frustrate and annoy. It isn’t a perfect film, but the beauty it contains is enough to keep you watching, waiting for that fateful moment. Aching because of how it all turns out.