Human intercourse. Weirdly-shaped reproductive organs, stuff secreting fluids, the human body changing colour, rushes of brain chemicals - if you described it to someone to whom the idea was completely foreign, it might sound like something from a David Cronenberg horror film. Only one or two generations ago, this is how men and women viewed sex and their bodies.
Adapted from his own 2007 novella by Ian McEwan and directed by first-timer Dominic Cooke, ‘On Chesil Beach’ follows young university graduates and virginal newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan, who previously played Briony Tallis in the film adaptation of McEwan's ‘Atonement’) and Edward (Billy Howle, ‘Dunkirk’, ‘The Sense of an Ending’) on their first night together in a bedroom at a seaside hotel on Chesil Beach in Dorset, in the summer of 1962.
'ON CHESIL BEACH' TRAILER
A series of flashbacks outlines Edward and Florence's first encounter, courtship and their drastically different backgrounds, with director Dominic Cooke smoothly telling their backstories when prompted by something the couple says or feels. Florence is from a proudly upscale middle-class family, led by Emily Watson as a haughty mother. Edward’s mother (Anne-Marie Duff) was brain-damaged by an accident (she was struck by the door of a moving train in the film’s most shocking scene), and now sits around, painting and cooking and babbling. Through the strong performances of these supporting actors, you can identify with both of their inexperienced children, who bring the baggage of their families as well as oppressive social convention to the bedroom (with a little bit of humour thrown in).
Eventually, though, ‘On Chesil Beach’ stops being an amusing showcase for daffy parents, rude Dorset waiters and a how-to guide of ways to delay sex and turns into a chronicle of how to make a bad moment incalculably worse. The shift to heavy drama nearly tips the film over – Edward, in particular, is almost too immature to keep relating to.
Eventually, though, ‘On Chesil Beach’ stops being an amusing showcase for daffy parents, rude Dorset waiters and a how-to guide of ways to delay sex and turns into a chronicle of how to make a bad moment incalculably worse.
Cooke demonstrates in ‘On Chesil Beach’ not only how sensitively he can direct actors, but also use the medium as a language based on framing, pacing, editing, and music. Florence, an ambitious musician who is the acknowledged leader of her newly formed string quartet, is accompanied by precise, slightly repressed classical music. Edward has a taste for the period’s emergent rock and roll scene - the opening sequence shows him trying to explain blues chord progressions to Florence who considers Chuck Berry to be “merry” and “bouncy”. Dan Jones’s music track is right on cue between pieces of Schubert and songs by Chuck Berry.
The film is only really hurt by an overly long coda including a time jump to 1975 to a record-store encounter that only involves one of the main characters. A second, even worse, time jump to 2007 occurs for an overly telegraphed ending and the appearance of some shitty old-age makeup over the smooth mugs of its young actors, ‘Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part 2’-style.
A few screenplay hiccups aside, the film is a strong debut from director Dominic Cooke. ‘On Chesil Beach’ is set during a repressed time, and it’s a tale of buttoned-up people. But, long after the film ends, you will still be wondering what they were keeping in check.