It takes a while watching On Chesil Beach for it to dawn on you, with horror, that it’s a mystery of sorts. The crime scene is the marriage bed, the weapon is withheld sex, and the suspects parade by in flashback as newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) prepare for their first night together as man and wife. It’s a bizarre premise with supposedly respectable provenance, based on a novella by Ian McEwan. Unfortunately McEwan, adapting his own work, and first-time director Dominic Cooke, have a hard time rendering the touchy, interior subject matter cinematic; a potentially promising story of an emotional and physical impasse is flattened so much as to be offensive.
The film opens with the young couple’s arrival at the titular Dorset beach, at a windswept little inn just off the long stretch of moody seaside. Florence and Edward are talking music, as we will soon learn they often do — rock and roll now, classical later, maybe jazz after that. As they shyly check into the inn and have a painfully awkward room-service dinner in the presence of two servers, it’s abundantly clear that the two are still effectively children — children in love, sure, but children who have no idea what they’re doing. But they’re not the sort of kids in love who fall all over each other as soon as they’re alone; the bed looms behind them ominously. Florence wants to go out to the beach again, Edward wants to “stay in” — neither of them have the confidence to say what they really mean.
Throughout all this, we flash back through their relationship — their different socioeconomic backgrounds, how they bond over music, how Florence wins over Edward’s family. But Florence’s aversion to physical intimacy is the creeping specter throughout this, and the film has the bad taste to treat it like a stalker in the night. It treats a young woman’s sexual preference — in this case, apparent asexuality — as a puzzle to be solved. As present day Florence and Edward get closer and closer to consummation, the “whodunit” of it all is revealed in a tastelessly climactic fashion.
On Chesil Beach is the story of a woman’s interior state, told through the point of view of the man who loves her, and as such, it’s almost impossible not to be a little emotionally patronizing. Ronan and Howle are both sensitive and brutally frustrated at their impasse, but the script pits them against each other in a way that feels like a dead end. As the story jumps into the future, with Edward nursing his regret over that fateful honeymoon, it’s hard not to feel like we’re watching the wrong person. It’s hard to mourn this young romance when it feels so hopelessly doomed, and when both Edward and the film itself make so little effort to actually understand Florence. The exception is the failed sex scene itself. It’s shot all in extreme close-ups, with so much tactile, sweaty-palm awkwardness and dumb fumbling that when Florence runs from the room screaming, you kind of know where she’s coming from.