Saoirse Ronan is no stranger to Ian McEwan’s writing. She received her first Oscar nomination at just 13-years-old for her work in Joe Wright’s adaptation of McEwan’s novel Atonement. Now, at 24, Ronan just might receive another nomination for another McEwan adaptation. Directed by Dominic Cooke (his first feature) and adapted for the screen by McEwan himself, On Chesil Beach is driven by the same kind of tragic, beautiful love story that made Atonement so memorable.
It takes place on a young couple’s wedding night, but their nervous fumbling in a honeymoon suite in a hotel near the titular beach is interspersed with flashbacks of the couple’s courtship and childhoods. Ronan plays Florence, a vibrant girl and gifted musician whose anxiety over consummating her relationship with her new husband, Edward, borders on terror.
Billy Howle plays Edward, a sweet young man whose suppressed passion sometimes morphs into anger. Howle is basically unknown in the States (though he played one of the many brave, nameless men in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk), but McEwan was impressed by his work in Richard Eyre’s adaptation of Long Day’s Journey into Night. Ronan had also acted opposite Howle’s when they played love interests in the film adaptation of The Seagull, which was filmed before On Chesil Beach and hit theaters last week. It’s no surprise then, that Ronan and Howle have palpable onscreen chemistry. They make the audience believe their characters are in love and it only makes what happens between the coupe more devastating.
Edward is just as nervous as Florence about their first night together, but for very different reasons. Howle beautifully conveys not just how enamored Edwards is with Florence, but also how sad and frightened he is of being embarrassed. Nowhere is that more powerfully conveyed than in the flashback where Florence meets his mother for the first time, who has been eccentric ever since an unfortunate accident. Without dialogue, Howle conveys both how worried Edward is that his mother’s behavior will change the way Florence feels about him and how relieved he is when the women get along. Seeing Edward burst into relieved tears the second he’s alone is one of the many moments that convey how sensitive and fragile he is.
It’s precisely that fragility, though, that makes the film’s painful second act possible. The wedding night does not go well, to say the least, and the obvious love between Florence and Edward suddenly turns wounded and vicious. Though Ronan is downright effervescent as a young woman in love, it’s the scenes where she conveys Florence’s anxiety that stand out. It turns out her anxiety isn’t just about the repression of the time period, but the repressed memory of an inappropriate encounter with her father when she was younger.
Though the film remains vague on whether the incident was singular or the beginning of a horrible pattern, Ronan conveys just how traumatic and formative it was even in scenes outside the honeymoon suite. For instance, the flashback where she reacts to her father (Samuel West) yells at her for witnessing his emasculation after Edward manages to score a single point against him in tennis. She doesn’t consciously remember then what her father did, but Ronan plays Florence as at turns frightened, upset and ashamed that echoes how she must have felt around him as a child when the memory was fresher.
Where the book is so vague on Florence’s molestation that it’s easy to miss completely, the film doesn’t show us Edward’s capacity for anger until it’s already unleashed. In the book, McEwan uses an anecdote about Edward attacking a man who insults his Jewish friend and while the film shows the same scene, it doesn’t have the benefit of allowing McEwan to explain its significance. As a result, Edward’s rage seems to come out of nowhere and it makes it difficult to sympathize with his embarrassment.
That said, it’s not entirely his fault. As McEwan says in the book’s opening lines, “…they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” Florence simply doesn’t have the words to articulate what’s keeping her so physically distant from Edward and he doesn’t have the capacity to understand why it would keep her from loving him in the way he so desperately wants. Likewise, sensitive as Edward is, he’s never been taught to be more attentive to Florence’s signals and less focused on sex. He lives in a world where male pleasure is paramount and female discomfort is, at best, something to overcome and, at worst, a fatal flaw. It’s mindset that leads to heartbreak, but perhaps what’s most tragic about the story is how easily it could be avoided.
As Edward says after the disastrous encounter in the honeymoon suite, the love he and Florence share could free them and under slightly different circumstances, maybe it would have. McEwan likes to play with time to emphasize tragedy and here, he uses flash forwards to emphasize the cruelty of circumstance. If Florence and Edward’s story had happened just a few years later, everything would be different. They would have had the sexual liberation of the swinging ‘60s, the beginnings of the feminist movement and even the rise of psychotherapy to help them articulate what makes their first time together so fraught. They would have been better equipped to help each other through their fears.
McEwan’s stories are often about choices and the way they can change the course of a person’s life. It’s a somewhat nihilistic worldview, but it’s also one that allows him to critique the social norms of earlier times with such force. On Chesil Beach does that just as well as Atonement, but there’s an extra layer of poignancy in seeing Saoirse Ronan go from the child who misunderstands the doomed couple in the earlier film to one half of the doomed couple now. Her work as Florence is probably too subtle to get her an Oscar, but she and the film itself deserve to be praised.