LFF 2017: Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle Explore Love, Marriage, and Sex in On Chesil Beach

Just Married – newly-wedded bliss isn’t exactly the premise for On Chesil Beach. The Lionsgate film directed by Dominic Cooke is based on the novel with the same titled written by Ian McEwan, who also penned the script.

After just getting married, Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) embark on what is meant to be the most romantic time of their lives. But their honeymoon at the Dorset shore is cut short when the newlyweds try to be more intimate with each other. Both of them have no previous sexual experience, and it shows. Their first time is more awkward than pleasant and ends with Florence storming out of the hotel.

The film uses a variety of flashbacks to explore not just how Edward and Florence fell in love, but also how their very different upbringing and social status have affected their ideals of marriage, love, and sexuality.

Florence, is a recent music graduate with big dreams of making her quintet profitable, while Edward just received his history degree and hopes to write a book about the lesser-known historically influential people. Florence is part of an established upper-middle class family, while Edward belongs to the working class.

Both characters struggle with their own familial issues. Edward’s mother has been diagnosed with a brain dysfunction which makes her exhibit erratic behaviour, and it is hinted that Florence has a strained relationship with her father. This is likely connected to her inability to connect with her husband sexually.

While sex is an important factor of marriage for Edward, Florence asks him to be patient with her, and explains that she has never felt a need for it, and that she likely never will. She cannot stand the thought of having to sleep with Edward, and she even offers him to find release with other women. The couple has a fallout on the beach, after which they decide to annul their marriage, based on never having consummated it.

In its final moments the movie flashes forward to two instances in Edward’s life where he is forced to confront the past, with surprising results.

 

Photo: Lionsgate

 

On Chesil Beach is another brilliant instance where Saoirse Ronan proves her ability to capture the zeitgeist of a whole era. Ronan displays the grace and beauty of a woman in the 1960s, while keeping her vulnerability. While the film never truly tells the root of Florence’s disinterest in sex, it rather gives its audience the ability to form its own opinion, and Ronan’s performance add to that. None of the characters are demonized for their actions, and the audience is able to connect with both Florence and Edward and understand their motivation.

However, the movie feels incredibly long, and could have easily been cut short in many instances. Particularly the exposition felt unnecessarily dragged out. In addition, the first of the two aforementioned flashbacks did not add to the story either.

Nonetheless, Cooke’s first feature film is a beautifully shot and visually pleasing movie, with slow, and poignant sequences. Its stunning cinematography and impressive production design amount to a truly well-executed picture.

On Chesil Beach is a bitter-sweet experience – while we follow their love story develop through the flashbacks, we witness it fall apart in the present time.

On Chesil Beach will be screened for general audiences Sunday October 8, Tuesday October 10, and Sunday October 15. For more information visit the official BFI website. The movie is scheduled for a UK release in January 2018.

Verena Cote
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