On Chesil Beach: Flawed but Heart-breaking Depiction of a Relationship Gone Wrong
In the opening minutes of On Chesil Beach, young couple Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan) discuss music as they walk along the rocky shore toward their honeymoon hotel. Edward is a devotee of rock and roll. Florence, a violinist in a string quartet, is not, but is nonetheless willing to appreciate Chuck Berry as “bouncy” and “merry”. The scene that then unfolds in the hotel room – a desperately awkward sexual encounter in which Edward is insensitive to Florence’s discomfort and Florence unable to speak her lack of desire – could be transposed to a twenty-first century setting with no loss of realism despite its 1960s setting. In its aftermath, in contrast to the opening scene’s implications, it is Florence who proves to be the free-thinker.
On Chesil Beach’s central narrative of the build-up to and aftermath of a disastrous sexual encounter is outstandingly authentic and effective. Farcically comic elements cleverly emphasise the agonising awkwardness of the hotel-room scene: the hotel staff at the beginning, for instance, intrude on Florence and Edward to set the table for dinner, before hovering in anticipation of a tip. Later, the logistics of intercourse itself – taking place on a bed covered with tawdry red satin – are shown at their most ridiculous and awkward. Edward leaves his socks on throughout, which is a nice touch. In a different film, these moments could evoke laughter; in On Chesil Beach they add to the viewer’s cringing discomfort. The sexual encounter is exceptionally unerotic, particularly the gapingly open-mouthed kisses Edward inflicts on Florence. The scene perfectly depicts the dangerous absence of communication that leads to sex which, while not rape, hardly fits the paradigm of “enthusiastic consent”. Edward overlooks Florence’s unspoken discomfort, even while she verbally consents – her lack of active participation is not enough for him to stop. The problem runs deep: the couple’s lack of real knowledge of each other; their inability to talk about sex and their relationship; and their shared assumption that sex must happen between a couple on their honeymoon. Although a period piece, On Chesil Beach reminds the viewer that lack of sexual communication is commonplace; it is even idealised in many films, where couples will make passionate love while sharing barely a word. On Chesil Beach painfully depicts the consequences.
The latter half of the film takes us onto the beach itself – a stony, misty expanse – where Florence and Edward finally talk to each other, laying themselves bare for the first time. A heart-wrenching row ensues. They talk at cross-purposes, Florence desperately trying to convey her feelings, Edward insisting that she has deliberately humiliated him. It is here, in moments of anger, that Edward’s misogyny breaks through: he bullies Florence, refuses to listen to her, calls her “frigid” – even, unforgivably crossing a line, hurling the insult “bitch” at her. His burst of anger mirrors the angry controlling outbursts we witness from Florence’s father in a flashback, and suddenly Edward’s comments to Florence throughout the film that “you’re mine now” seem considerably less romantic.
The breakdown in the relationship is unbearably real. Edward and Florence love each other, but that simply isn’t enough to make things right – a far more emotionally devastating obstacle than an external factor keeping a couple apart. The two central scenes in the hotel room and on the beach itself are the film’s heart and its strength, drawing the viewer into the grip of the characters’ emotions. I was left wrung out by the experience.
Regular flashbacks reveal the backstory of the couple’s relationship and explore defining moments of each character’s personal history. Each flashback is compelling on its own terms, but their often-clunky deployment is not particularly well-structured. They tend toward the hermeneutical – purporting to decode the couple in a way which is ultimately reductive. Human beings aren’t so amenable to being solved. In particular, an implied revelation about Florence’s past is effectively disturbing but comes too close to a glib explanation of her lack of desire. Furthermore, none of the flashbacks match the vivid authenticity to be found in the central scenes. Their inclusion breaks the steadily-mounting tension and discomfort to the detriment of the film’s atmosphere.
The clumsiness of the flashbacks is mirrored by an overly explicit script; characters occasionally say out loud thoughts which should be conveyed by the performances. “I always get everything wrong,” from Edward, for instance, or “I’m being silly and selfish, as usual,” from Florence. The superfluity of these comments is only highlighted by the strength of the acting. As ever, Saoirse Ronan’s performance is impeccable: the inner life of her character shines so clearly through her facial expressions, down to subtle movements of her eyes and mouth, that Florence doesn’t need to say what she is thinking out loud. Ronan’s face says enough. Billy Howle isn’t quite as luminous a screen presence, but he too delivers a convincing performance which does not fall down next to hers. Together, they overcome the script’s shortcomings; even where the dialogue may not ring entirely true, the emotions evinced absolutely do.
Critical ire has been drawn by the film’s admittedly clumsy and sentimental coda. It’s true that the over-extended “what happened next” sequence is a misguided conclusion to the film – a contrived scene in a record shop and some astoundingly unconvincing age make-up being low points. While detrimental to the film’s pacing and structure, however, the epilogue doesn’t undermine the impact of what has gone before. Furthermore, even the coda has a couple of genuinely heart-rending moments which tap into fears many viewers will share of making a terrible, irreversible mistake which forever changes the course of a life.
On Chesil Beach is flawed. Nonetheless, its problems are redeemed by the emotional truths at its core. Anyone who has, like Florence, desperately tried to fix a relationship that seems to be disintegrating, or who has struggled and failed to communicate about sex when they most need to, will be moved by On Chesil Beach. Furthermore, the themes it engages with – misogyny, consent, desire, relationships – are of enduring importance today. On Chesil Beach shows us what happens when we don’t, or won’t, talk about sex and love: the consequences can last a lifetime.