The best cinematic romances are those that fail, the poignancy of loves lost piercing sharper than happily ever afters. Think of the missed connections in Brief Encounter, Casablanca, or Annie Hall, and you’ll realise that these couples endure so well because they never really had a chance. On Chesil Beach is a bold if stumbling addition to this lonely hearts club, its couple caught up in a very last-century preoccupation – ignorance of sex.
If for Philip Larkin sexual intercourse began in 1963, then this film appropriately takes place the year prior, as newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) honeymoon in a seaside hotel. When both virgins try to consummate their relationship, things go awry. Extended flashbacks provide us with the roots of their discord, director Dominic Cooke clinically but gently peeling back to the heart of the matter.
Florence and Edward meet during their university days at Oxford – he trying to celebrate getting a first, she taking part in a CND meeting in mild rebuke to her snobbish parents. Cue love at first sight of fellow privilege – at least, almost, as Edward’s lower middle class background makes him a relative bumpkin compared to Florence. Class-crossed lovers, maybe, but neither would or could ever be at risk of going hungry.
Based on the novella by Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach fits nicely into that vein of very English films that make mountains out of intra-bourgeois molehills. Though it might seem counter-intuitive to fault a tale of sexual repression for being, well, too repressed, it perhaps would have been better served had McEwan not written the screenplay. As it is, long stretches feel like a laboured attempt to woo the Man Booker jurors.
What vibrancy there is comes from the remarkable lead performances. Ronan – who appeared at the tender age of 12 in the slightly better McEwan adaptation, Atonement – shines as a future great in the making, her porcelain chill tightly suited to Florence’s neuroses. Howle is just as compelling in his waifish bluster and heartache, likeable for the way he works with his beauty rather than simply resting on it.
A time jump in the film’s last act unintentionally deflates the emotional weight Ronan and Howle have built up, if only because of the flimsy makeup. Here the constraints of the source material are most pronounced, McEwan’s need for his protagonists to convey broader social changes meaning they become categories rather than characters.
On Chesil Beach may be about the intimate claustrophobia of bad sex and bottled-up feelings, but for its story to resonate rather than glide by it perhaps needed to betray its subject matter and do exactly what its main characters can’t – breathe a little.