Dir. Dominic Cooke. Starring Saiorse Ronan, Billy Howle, Adrian Scarborough
On Chesil Beach might even have been Atonement but for two things. (It is probably not fair of me to compare them, but Ian McEwan, sad lovers, I doubt I’m the first one here.) First, Ronan and Howle don’t have the power of Knightley and McAvoy. Howle’s issue is fairly clear, as his performance requires more credulity than I’m inclined to indulge in. Ronan’s is more difficult in part because the data is still coming in on her performances, and I say this without having seen the annoyingly ungrammatical Mary Queen of Scots. I wonder if, as Ronan ages, she’ll continue to play upper-class characters with frosty reserve. (Her lower-class characters, like Lady Bird and Eilis of Brooklyn, are genuine, relatable, and inviting; Ronan seems to have a home there.) As a child, Briony of Atonement worked extremely well with that remove, but as an adult, Ronan’s Florence has much the same playbook, and the tender seriousness she tries to infuse it with is unlike the capricious seriousness of the girl. It doesn’t land as well, even when she tries. There’s a sequence which halfway works in where Cooke follows a map-reading Florence in the woods as she walks to the cricket field Edward is a groundskeeper at. I took the train, she said, and I walked here, and I thought of you the whole way. At the height of their passion and gaiety, it is an awfully rehearsed and premeditated delivery. At this point in her career, Ronan is much better at looking in love than talking in love; check back at her dreamy faces and languid poses in Brooklyn for proof. On Chesil Beach has a stagey feel a little often, which we’ll get back to, but part of the reason that doesn’t work well is because Ronan’s dialogue with Howle in the flashbacks feels a little false. The strength of her performance is in the movie’s present as opposed to its past.
Second, Atonement means to hammer us throughout the film with its injustice and longing and hurt. What Briony does to Robbie, and by extension Cecilia, is unconscionable. The movie plays out that moment at the beginning, brings us a reckoning, and then dashes it over the space of two hours. On Chesil Beach is designed for a single moment of utter revulsion, one which comes fairly late in the film. Having learned from a book that a wife is well within her rights to guide her husband in, Florence gives it a go. Edward, who is as much a virgin as her, splooshes. A cut (and a rather ineffective one at that for its neatness) exposes her father’s molestation of her as a girl. Her reaction is sudden; in a swift motion, she grabs a throw pillow and immediately scrubs her thighs with it like a dog trying to remove a turd from its fur. There is no more powerful or lasting image in On Chesil Beach, and the horror that fills both Florence and Edward—she because of her trauma, he because of this instant reversal—is palpable. It’s a risky storytelling move, because the disgust of this movie must be so overpowering that it justifies a relatively slow burn which also makes it fairly clear what’s going to happen. If the awkwardness of eating this fancy dinner or the first tiff they have (about whether or not they should pack up the dinner for later and walk out on the beach) isn’t clear enough, the absolute failure on Edward’s part to undress Florence smoothly, the pained faces Florence makes, are utterly transparent. I like that On Chesil Beach makes room for consensual bad sex, especially among people who one wouldn’t expect to have it from their descriptions; it’s a powerful fear for so much of the population and it so rarely makes it to the big screen.
One of the best-directed moments of On Chesil Beach is when the camera, from a little lower than table height, watches Florence and Edward eat. We’ve already seen Edward fail to understand the niceties of fine dining in a few ways, but the fact that Florence understands those rules a million times better is made clear by the way she holds her utensils. Her wrists are completely off the table, almost like her knife and fork will be set to dancing, as if she can dine where others merely eat. He has working-class wrists, and they are gross and obtrusive in this setting. The movie’s great conflict for most of its runtime is the difference in social class between Florence and Edward. The wrists are a key, but the primary expression of their class roles is musical. Edward is a lover of rock ‘n’ roll, and we find out that the middle-aged version of him owns a record store. Florence is an exceptional violinist who dreams of playing in great music halls and theaters with her quartet. It is after one of those rehearsals that we see Edward hesitant for the first time about Florence. In his interactions with her, he is struck by her friendliness, her beauty, and when she comes to meet his family, her heartwarming facility with his mother, who is ill. (Brain damage from blunt force trauma, though without the unusual romantic potential of The Light in the Piazza.) No one has been able to interact with her on any sort of serious level since her injury, and yet Florence bounces in and does, as far as I can tell, some kind of art therapy that breaks down a wall. The violin remains, though. It’s a sign of her class superiority that he cannot accede to, a sign of skill that he has no equal to, and maybe most importantly an obsession that he cannot mirror. We find out that even if she doesn’t have him, there will be something else to fill the void. As he gets older, Edward has nothing like that.
As much as I admire the little touches signifying class without having to hit us over the head with it, On Chesil Beach ultimately devolves into filmed play territory. There’s something much too stark and posed about the final confrontation, especially in its quiet moments. What does one do with this moment from the end of the film, where, yes, we get it, they are going in opposite directions?
Or how about this, which looks so much like an indie album cover that it’s almost a meme?
On stage, something like this might even work (excepting Billy Howle’s slouching, which brings out the mother of elementary schoolers in me—I just want to yell “Stand up straight!” at him). In person the energy of these two people looking the same way but not acknowledging each other may, especially after ninety minutes, work beautifully. In a movie this is art without matter; the screen works against us, and the prettiness of the image and the aggressive correlation of body and situation becomes at best distracting. It robs what ought to be a profoundly painful scene into a scene which prizes the display over the feeling. In a scene which is occasionally even striking, as when a wife on her wedding night suggests to her husband that he should start sleeping with other women, it just doesn’t hit home. On Chesil Beach makes me want to believe, but short of a single magnificent and disgusting moment—the only one which feels original—it never gives me a reason to do so.