A fledgling marriage comes to a major crossroad before it begins in On Chesil Beach, a period drama adapted by English author/screenwriter Ian McEwan (The Innocent) from his bestselling 2007 novel of the same name.
Set in 1962 England, On Chesil Beach introduces Florence (three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), newlyweds who decide to spend their wedding night in a hotel on the seashore. Florence and Edward come from different backgrounds and don’t share the same interests. Edward likes American rock ’n’ roll while Florence prefers classical music. He enjoys history and birdwatching while her only extracurricular activity is playing the violin in a string ensemble.
“I think you must be the squarest person in all of Western civilization,” Edward tells his wife after she describes Chuck Berry as “bouncy.” But her taste in music isn’t going to be their undoing. It’s impossible to talk about On Chesil Beach without revealing exactly why Florence and Edward are such a bad fit. So, we’ll just say it: Florence is revolted by sex and has no desire to ever consummate their marriage, a small detail Edward probably would’ve liked to have known before they tied the knot.
It becomes apparent in the first half of the film that McEwan’s critically acclaimed novel has translation issues on the silver screen. The most evident is the time spent on the awkward scenes inside the hotel room where Florence and Edward fumble with zippers and avoid intimacy by nervously bantering back and forth. It’s easy to see how these details could be read as emotionally tragic, but seeing it play out cinematically feels disconnected.
Also weak are the numerous flashbacks in the screenplay that McEwan and first-time director Dominic Cooke attempt to use to mold the two leads into realistic characters who would resonate with audiences. Besides an ambiguous scene where it’s hinted that Florence might have been sexually abused as a child, not much from these nonlinear sections of the film give any insight into who these individuals are. Even a secondary storyline about Edward’s mentally ill mother forces the narrative into melodramatic pitfalls.
Ronan’s and Howle’s onscreen chemistry, too, is nonexistent. Even when they’re not acting like the most pitiful virgins in movie history since Jason Biggs humped pastry in American Pie, the characters are stunted. Without the same authority that filmmaker Todd Haynes used to confront issues of sexuality in the 1950s and 1960s in his films Far from Heaven and Carol, Cooke’s On Chesil Beach is a missed opportunity to add to that conversation.