Review: On Chesil Beach

Paul Norris 6 June 2018

I’ve never totally understood beaches. Once I’ve admired the view, immersed myself briefly in the water and collected a diverse collection of irritating particles between my toes I feel quite ready to call it a day. The British beach trip is tinged with melancholy, not only because it recalls memories of my own childhood, but because it dips into a collective nostalgia for the days when thousands flocked to the British coast, lurked under parasols and kicked the surf. I don’t know much about this golden age of beachgoing, but I would guess it peaked shortly before 1962.

On Chesil Beach reinforces this impression with its vision of a tired seaside hotel, with its aged furnishings, awkward staff and deserted beach. Newlywed Edward and Florence are here on their honeymoon. They are terrified of offending, terrified of arguing, terrified of each other. Most of all they are terrified of the bed which looms in the adjacent room. Before the film began, the age certificate’s warning about ‘strong sex’ made me wonder what ‘weak sex’ would look like. In fact, ‘weak sex’ would have been a more accurate description. Once a pair of waiters have stopped hovering around the couple’s dining table, their gradual advances towards the bed were excruciating to watch. Florence is clearly far less invested than Edward is. When she admits that she is afraid, Edward ignores the substance of what she has said and makes it about himself, saying ‘I think I am too’. Her fears clearly go much deeper. Like the West’s relationship with North Korea, her attempts to diffuse the situation lead to escalation: when she becomes uncomfortable with his passionate, even slightly canine, kisses, she suggests they move into the bedroom.

The couple’s first night together is the film’s dramatic core, around which the rest of the action revolves. Their earlier life together and family backgrounds are conveyed by extended flashbacks, which make up most of the film. Billy Howle’s Edward is fervently intelligent and a little self-involved (he meets Florence at an Oxford CND meeting which he attends only because he is desperate to tell someone he got a 1:1). Florence is sophisticated but somewhat distant, or maybe disconnected, or effete. She is much harder to pinpoint, which is highly to Saoirse Ronan’s credit. The couple are a combination of irreconcilable elements: Florence an aethereal and high-minded Ariel, Edward an earthy and impulsive Caliban. In their earlier life together one sees that the disaster of their first night together was inevitable but oppressively sad. Sad because the actors so viscerally bring out the joy of their time together: Florence’s instant connection with Edward’s usually delusional mother; smaller moments, like compressing the grass on a cricket pitch together. When it emerges that they are, in ways I will not discuss in detail, sexually incompatible, neither covers themselves in glory. Florence blames Edward for his sexual feelings, while he viciously lashes out at her and claims she has lied to him by not disclosing her asexuality.

The film’s cinematography takes a cue from the original novel’s cover, but doesn’t share its washed-out palate. The colours here are vivid, especially during the flashback scenes. The imagery is conventional but gains poignancy as the rift between the couple emerges. They exchange flowers. Edward’s clothes are tawny and worn, Florence’s light and immaculate.

I was surprised that the film kept the book’s epilogue, half-expecting it to end where it began: on the beach. I was yet more surprised that the film embellished this section, and although I was moved at the time I think the film would be more powerful and concise if it implied more than it revealed of the couple’s life after their first (and last) night.