MOVIE REVIEW: On Chesil Beach

(Image: Vanity Fair)

(Image: Vanity Fair)

Official selection of the 6th annual Chicago Critics Film Festival


Sexual consummation for a young married couple should be easy for two eager people in love.  Many greet love-making with energized fireworks and a celebratory checkered flag. For others laden with awkwardness, immaturity, or flawed expectations, final carnal culmination looks more like an insurmountable mountain of fears.  The proverbial cold feet from either partner are set in a glacier of trepidation. Tediously balancing easy charm with the uncomfortable gravity of unintended consequences, On Chesil Beach looks to scale that icy peak of jilting jitters from a picturesque locale beset by ultimatums.

LESSON #1: SEX AS AN OBSTACLE-- Even in the disrobing steps of preparation and foreplay, the vulnerability and modesty can create a stifling amount of anxiety.  That is only if you make it that way. There is no pageantry with passion. It it happens. It is not coordinated, Just go for it and put the daintiness away.  Be honest in the bedroom, especially if you are with your betrothed ‘till-death-do-us-part spouse.

When the blushing bride sitting across the wedding veil, dinner table, or honeymoon suite bedroom is Saoirse Ronan, should intimacy really be this difficult?  The recent Lady Bird and Brooklyn Oscar nominee is on a Midas Touch hot streak of pitch-perfect performances.  Her work in On Chesil Beach is the latest showy addition to the growing evidence confirming Ronan’s emerging greatness.  It is the debut feature from TV director Dominic Cooke (The Hollow Crown) that premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival and played locally as part of the 6th Chicago Critics Film Festival earlier in the month.

In this or any marriage, as they often say, it takes two to tango.  Opposite Ronan’s Florence Ponting is Dunkirk ensemble player Billy Howle stepping into a leading man role to play her beau Edward Mayhew.  The year is 1962 and the two newlyweds come from disparate middle-class backgrounds. He has humbly finished a degree program in history while helping to manage his brain-damaged mum Marjorie (Anne Marie-Duff of Suffragette) at home.  She is a square girl and talented concert violinist of a quartet with an emerging new sound (lovely stand-in violin performances from Esther Yoo).  Florence comes from a more well-of family of picky and classist parents. All of their doting feelings and amorous anticipation have led to this honeymoon wedding night on the Dorset seashore.

What should be a magical evening of passion is fraught with sexual awkwardness, intrusions, frustration, and uncertainty.  When the seductive fits and starts snag and connective touches trigger remembrances, whimsical cinematic flashbacks pause the pensive attempts at passion to reveal the key moments of their courtship.  These episodes and some of the beginning bedroom fails create a spritely comedy and charmingly bouncy narrative. Sharply shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) bending the wind and sun in his favor, these sections bring will-they-or-won’t-they smiles.  Once things progress, the consternation piles on by a heavily melodramatic third act that advances the timeline forward decades into the couple’s future.

Throughout, Ronan and Howle impress with dedicated and touching performances.  They weather both the beautiful and unexpected story turns with impact and engagement.  Original novella writer Ian McEwan was able to write his own screenplay and select his own places to deviate and condense.  The denouement in the film is shortened from the deeper explorations made by the novel. It’s a hell of a turn that hits like a ton of brick but feels very rushed.  The additional heft and scope do elevate the film from the comedic beginning into something more poignant, albeit it is a mismatched and frustrating experience to approach and accept, much like the maligned central couple.

LESSON #2: LOVE IS THE REAL DRAW OF PASSION-- If unconditional love is present, intimacy will follow and melt any coldness of nerves  That love has to be patient and accepting without demands or hang-ups of vows. It’s a bond, not a routine.  Passion will be welcomed when true heart is welcomed first, free of expectations and selfish wants. Love is what develops out of intimacy, not the other way around.