Review: Great Chemistry From Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle Can't Stop Ian McEwan's 'On Chesil Beach' From Being Misery Porn
Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle played lovers on the brink of collapse in the surprisingly good recent film adaptation of Chekhov’s classic play The Seagull, and they do the same sort of thing again in On Chesil Beach, the screen version of Ian McEwan’s novella. But while both stories tackle sort of the same themes — the rigidity of the classist structure; the rigors of creative ambition; the consuming nature of love that burns too bright too fast — The Seagull was a fairly enjoyable ensemble piece that still felt relevant more than 100 years after Chekhov’s original work. On Chesil Beach, meanwhile, is another McEwan exercise in masturbatory sadness. I am an Atonement apologist, but even this is too much, man.
[Spoilers ahead for On Chesil Beach, because there was some real stuff here that pissed me off, and I am in venting mode]
The film begins in 1962 on Britain’s Chesil Beach, where newlyweds Edward (Howle) and Florence (Ronan) are settling into their room at a quiet bed and breakfast. Married mere hours before, the two recently graduated from university — Edward with top marks in history, Florence with top marks in music — and they’re a bit of an unexpected pair, with her upper-class background and his working-class roots. It’s clear where the night is going: Edward keeps telling her how beautiful she is, initiating make-out sessions, and bluntly asks the hotel staff serving them dinner when they’re going to leave. But it’s also clear that Florence isn’t ready. With every sexual move Edward makes, Florence interrupts, asking him to “tell me something.” What should they name their children? What are some memories of their relationship? Can they stop so she can take off her shoes? And she can take off her dress and her stockings herself, thanks, she doesn’t need his help.
With every little movement, it becomes obvious to the audience: Florence has been sexually assaulted. There is something in her history, some experience in the past, that has made her jittery, on edge, and terrified of her marriage night. And so for viewers, the remainder of On Chesil Beach becomes consumed with trying to figure out who hurt Florence — which is actually a pretty crappy way to watch a movie!
McEwan, who adapted his own novella, and director Dominic Cooke lean into this, too, offering up flashbacks that continually raise questions about Florence’s past. Could her abuser have been the guy in her string quartet, the one who keeps asking her out despite her continual rejections? What about the priest she meets with to discuss her anxieties about getting married? One day when she goes to visit Edward, she walks seven miles through a forest to see him; could something have happened then? The narrative structures its vignettes about Florence’s life by repetitively suggesting that something awful must have happened to her, effectively replacing her character development with this question.
Ronan is great, of course, bringing a sort of Lady Bird-esque subversive streak to Florence’s interactions with her classist parents; before they can even ask her about Edward, she sneers out “Is he working class or one of us?” But she can’t stop her mother from thinking Edward is a “bit of a country bumpkin,” and she can’t avoid her father freaking out on his future son-in-law during a friendly tennis match. Ronan handles all the facets of Florence’s character with aplomb, from the heart-breaking honesty of an admission she makes during a critical scene to her wounded shock during a fight with a parent, but ultimately this is a film that is interested in miring Florence in misery. This is certainly familiar ground for Ronan and McEwan, given her breakout performance in Atonement, but it feels particularly exhausting this time around.
Maybe that’s because the movie also does its damndest to make us feel sorry for and sympathize with Edward, who exhibits a bit of a nasty temper and a sense of familial exclusion (Howle plays that well, at least; he is quite effective at being spittingly angry). His father is consumed with taking care of his mother, who suffered a dehabilitating injury a few years before, and he doesn’t have much in common with his younger twin sisters. When he receives news of his top marks in his graduate work, he has no one to tell at home and no friends to call, which leads him to take a bus to Oxford and just wander around until he bumps into Florence, falls in love with her at first sight, and shares his academic news. The movie is full of moments like that, where we see Edward’s adoration of and affection for Florence, and that feels excessively built up so the film’s final 20 minutes will wound that much more.
So! Let’s talk about that concluding act and all the rage it caused in me! EVEN MORE SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Throughout the film, you see Florence’s discomfort with physical contact, yet Edward pushes forward with initiating their first night together. Right before they have sex, there is a flashback memory of Florence’s, where she is a child on a boat trip with her father, huddled in bed, as his figure holding a drink lingers behind her. The clear implication is that she was being sexually abused, and that this happened more than once. Traumatized by that memory (which underscores advice she gave to Edward about dealing with her father: “Just let him”) but thinking that sex is her wifely duty, she reaches down to touch Edward, causing him to ejaculate on her thigh. Overwhelmed with disgust, she runs out of the room and onto Chesil Beach, where she asks for a marriage where they be together and where she will continue to love him but they won’t have sex. He can sleep with other women, as long as he’ll always love her. She does not tell him about her memory of her father, but says that there is something about the physical act of sex that she cannot enjoy and does not think she ever will. Enraged by this proposition, Edward rejects her, calling Florence “frigid,” believing that she is rejecting him on account of their class divide, and turning his back on her. When he returns to the room later, she’s gone. After that the film only follows his perspective: The marriage is annulled because they never consummated it; he ends up owning a record store in the 1970s and dating another woman when a child walks into his store who is clearly Florence’s daughter; and then later in the ’00s we see him living alone at his parents’ home and warming up frozen dinners when he learns that Florence’s very successful quartet will be playing a local music venue. She ended up marrying that persistent guy from the quartet and having three children with him. Edward attends the concert and bursts into tears while hearing her play; they share a final look, and Florence begins to cry, too.
Oh, aren’t you so upset? Isn’t love so hard? Shouldn’t you feel so bad for Edward, for letting the love of his life get away? Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. Those are the suggested outcomes of On Chesil Beach, and the frustrating clichés are everywhere. How the movie treats sexual abuse like a mystery to be solved. The appearance of a magical child who makes Edward question his past behavior. And the conclusion that tries to encourage our pity for Edward’s selfishness and isolation instead of inspiring awe and respect for Florence’s survival. This is pure McEwan, through and through, and the misery porn of it all is exhausting.