On Chesil Beach

August 10, 2018
Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan don't feel very sexy on a grey pebble beach

Ian McEwan has complained about the difficulty of writing screenplays, and may have even sworn he’d never do it again. Nevertheless, here he is, adapting his own slender novel of 2007, On Chesil Beach. The book is not one of his best, being largely a sketch that revolves around a single, terrible night that changes the lives of two young newly-weds.

It’s a story about loss of innocence – not simply that of two nervous virgins, but of an entire society on the brink of the cultural and sexual upheavals of the 1960s. If the England of 1962, lovingly reconstructed in this film, bears little resemblance to the England of today it’s largely down to the decade that followed.

In 1962 the country had overcome the hangovers of wartime austerity, and was enjoying modest prosperity. The rock ‘n’ roll era was just beginning, with the Beatles putting out their debut single, Love Me Do.

The film begins with Florence and Edward checking into a dreary hotel at Chesil Beach, Dorset, on the night of their marriage. Both are in their early twenties, neither has a clue about sex. Edward is prepared to learn by the time-honoured expedient of trial and error. Florence has been studying a manual of sex education, frightening herself with the terminology. She’s not keen on the idea of being “penetrated”, which sounds positively murderous.

We follow the couple’s awkward manoeuvres for the course of that night, the story being punctuated by lengthy flashbacks that tell us about their family backgrounds, their personalities and their courtship. It’s a close facsimile of the novel right up until the end, when for some inexplicable reason McEwan decides to abandon his studied ambiguity and add a laborious postscript. What was left to the imagination of the reader is spelt out for the viewer in a dull, heavy-handed manner. It sucks the mystery from the story and gives it a varnish of sentimentality. If this was seen as a necessary compromise for the screen it suggests a patronising view of the audience.

For the most part, On Chesil Beach is a very watchable movie. It’s the first feature directed by Dominic Cooke, known for his work in the theatre. Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle are both excellent in the lead roles, as they keep up a constant banter while gnawing themselves to pieces inside. Much of their talk is about music – she’s a classically trained vioinist who is starting a string quartet, he prefers Chuck Berry.

Then there are the insights into their respective families. Florence’s father owns an electronics factory in Oxford, her mother is a professor of philosophy. Edward’s dad is the principal of a country school, his mother is brain damaged from an accident and seems to spend all her time painting, in various stages of undress.

There are very clear differences of class and wealth, but Florence is a huge hit at Edward’s disorderly household, and he is tolerated at her immaculate home. The differences in their family backgrounds are not fatal to their relationship, not at least on the surface.

For Florence the problem is sex. She is torn being wanting to postpone the dreaded encounter in the bedroom or racing to get it over with. Edward, who has been denied intimacies during their courtship, has allowed the event to take on operatic proportions in his mind.

Florence and Edward are obviously in love, and perfectly at ease with the idea of spending the rest of their lives together, if only they can get through the wedding night.

McEwan is a specialist in this kind of squirming sexual tension. The characters in his novels are always grappling with unconfessed desires, weighing up the possible consequences of their actions, suffering humiliations and crises of conscience. Such dilemmas seem to appeal to film directors. Think of Joe Wright’s adaptation of Atonement (2007), in which the protagonist pays a heavy price for one sexually charged mistake. If McEwan’s characters ever find happiness, it’s of a very qualified variety.

It doesn’t take long to realise that Florence and Edward’s youthful romance is headed down the gurgler. What passes for foreplay is so painful and protracted one feels like shouting, “Oh for Chrissake, just get on with it!”

To Australian eyes the ultimate symbol of the couple’s unhappiness must be Chesil Beach itself, which is a mass of grey pebbles. Where we have always seen the beach as symbol of happiness and hedonism, the stony shores of England have the contrary significance.

Think of Matthew Arnold’s famous poem, Dover Beach (1851). Written on the poet’s honeymoon, this lyric was almost certainly lodged in McEwan’s mind. When Arnold hears the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the tide grating against pebbles, he thinks of the waning of classical culture in confrontation with the crass materialism of the modern era. In a world in which the higher values have been disssipated, Arnold concludes that he and his wife can only be true to one another.

On Chesil Beach records the waning of another era – the comfortable, insular domain of little England, but in this instance Florence and Edward are not able to unite in a resistance movement. When sexual attraction fails, their backgrounds and personalities push them apart. Unable to make a stand on Arnold’s “darkling plain” they’re in danger of being swept away with the tide.

On Chesil Beach
Directed by Dominic Cooke
Written by Ian McEwan, after his own novel
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson, Samuel West, Bebe Cave
UK, rated M, 110 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 11 August, 2018