Across cultures and much of human history, the significance of sex is almost always identified beyond the biological act. Sex operates within a variety of cultural, interpersonal and intrapersonal spheres — the ways by which our relationship with sex follows or deviates from societal norms not only informs how we define ourselves, but also the nature of our bonds with others.
“On Chesil Beach” considers these implications of sex, especially in conversation with its role in romantic love. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s bestselling novel and directed by Dominic Cooke, with a screenplay by the author himself, the film follows a pair of lovers: Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle). The narrative opens in the hours after the couple’s 1962 marriage at a hotel on Chesil Beach. Though Edward proves eager to consummate their union, Florence demonstrates reluctance, and this reluctance manifests in the central tension of the film.
Temporality throughout the film proves consistently fluid. One moment, the couple awkwardly dines, avoiding discussion of the elephant-in-the-room bed and all the expectations associated therein. Next, viewers witness the development of Florence and Edward’s romance from its idyllic, love-at-first-sight conception. McEwan and Cooke tactfully illustrate the pregnancy of these hours after the wedding, hours informed not only by the shared history of both Florence and Edward, but by their individual pasts.
A meditation on the passage of time adds to the profundity of the film’s reflection on the gray spaces and ambiguities of love and identity. McEwan and Cooke’s employment of the arts and its impacts on the characters throughout the film similarly illustrates the most significant connections between characters, as well as the characters’ identities themselves. Though the movie is decidedly entrenched in the sphere of culture, it is not exclusively a discussion of such. It’s their passion for the arts, instead, that spurs the initial meeting of Florence and Edward — despite the upper-middle-class background of the former and the working-class upbringing of the latter.
It isn’t long before the two are head over heels in love, a romance only furthered by the duo’s artistic inclinations. Florence’s gentle aptitude for bringing out the best in Edward’s mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) proves evident by virtue of art, with Florence’s visit bringing out Marjorie’s more gentle side by her painting with Edward’s sisters. Ronan tackles the intricacies of her character with grace, fluidly transitioning between the youthful Florence full of young love and the more mature woman who does not shy away from Edward’s mother’s illness. Just as in “Lady Bird,” Ronan here embodies her character with such genuineness that she feels undeniably real — like somebody you know, or even a good friend.
The film flashes forward in two leaps from its 1962 beginning — first to 1975, then to 2007. Though such temporal shifts may have felt abrupt and disjointed in less steady hands, the film’s actors and director alike execute them with ease, allowing the jumps to carry, rather than disrupt, the narrative. Watching the characters age and change, yet maintain certain core characteristics, makes the film even more beautiful and the emotions it provokes even more pronounced. The screenwriter and director thus probe the characteristics that remain so inherent in our characters as to withstand the test of time. In the end, these characteristics prove transitory, the film ultimately exploring how they inform the fortitude of our relationships.
As with many successful works of art, audience members leave with more questions than answers. “On Chesil Beach” leaves us to question the nature of intimacy and desire, of love and what it means to feel close to another person. Though such considerations are too complex and multifaceted to bear any single definitive conclusion, they bespeak the film’s complex beauty, a beauty that resounds long after the final credits roll.
Contact Ryan Tuozzolo at [email protected].