Some thoughts on ‘On Chesil Beach’

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[A beautiful image: Florence (Saoirse Ronan) sitting along a stretch of beach on a rotten rowboat, entirely alone; as the camera pans back, Edward (Billy Howle) slowly approaches — in another shot, he is strikingly turned away. More striking, is the quiet dignity in Florence’s face…]

I had trepidation going to see On Chesil Beach. Despite the dire turn McEwan has taken in recent years regarding his literary output, On Chesil Beach is one of my favourite books I’ve read over the past few years. An extraordinarily concise, contained novella depicting a couple on their wedding night, on the *brink* of the sexual revolution of the 60s, who lack the very vocabulary to describe how they feel, how they urge (or don’t) and how to save themselves, their relationship and one another. I fretted awfully, a white wine in hand, that the very insular nature of the novel would be lost somehow in this film adaptation, directed by Dominic Cooke.

My fears were (in part) unwarranted, thankfully. The book/film consider something I’ve seldom seen touched on in contemporary film/literature/culture: the inefficacy of language, and how historical and social pressures (along with linguistic ones) cause the downfall of this genuine, young pairing.

Similarly to how Florence lacks the lexicon to describe her sexuality, or lack thereof to her husband, I don’t want to glibly ascribe ‘asexuality’ onto her character (or “frigid” as Edward cruelly summarises her). However, my biggest issue with the film lies in its portrayal of this element of Florence & Edward’s dynamic. As a friend pertinently pointed up, portrayals of differing sexuality (i.e. that fall out of the expected…shall I say canon) are seen as an ‘issue’, a problem-based narrative that they have to come to hurdle…like an obstacle. Perhaps one or two cryptic, very minute scenes seem to suggest Florence is abused by her father as a child. Regarding my note on these sexualities seen as obstacles, this seeming reference to abuse seemed to ‘explain away’ Florence’s lack of sexuality. ‘Ah! This makes sense now!’ I would rather this hadn’t been the case — a narrative that at least normalised asexuality, for example, would have been more helpful, rather than one that tried to explain it away. ‘This happened to her so this is why the way she is’…I don’t need to paste a billboard to point up the problem with this.

Of course, I am sure McEwan is poking an accusatory finger at English society of the time and its repressiveness as the culprit for the dissolution of this marriage, but Edward’s (verbally abusive) outburst to the stoic Florence on the eponymous Chesil Beach made me feel as though her simply not desiring him was the real downfall of the relationship. What made this worse, Ronan’s impassioned promise to her husband that her only wish was to “make something beautiful” for him in music…is that not as pure an expression of love as any other? As something so ephemeral as sex?

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Desire and issues of consent abound in On Chesil Beach — indeed, more…descriptive in the novella, but Ronan’s performance highlights the disgust and toe-curling discomfort Florence experiences in kissing her husband. Such is the genuineness of her love that she plans to go ahead with something that so wholeheartedly repels her, for the love of her husband. While he is…oblivious. Howle’s oblivion and emotional bluntness unnerved me throughout.

What made me most uncomfortable in my cinema seat was the progression of undressing, of foreplay, peppered with Florence breaking into abrupt reverie about the past, ‘tell me something Edward!’…all the flashbacks, the entire content of the film really, are simple distractions, Florence making time. Excruciating.

By its nature and what it attempts to portray, I feel like the core of this film lies in its understated emotional power; by that, in its stiff-British-upper-lippedness, it didn’t allow its actors any standout performances, I think. Admittedly, the performances were very moving (especially in the segments following years after the events of their wedding), but through their repression, I felt their performances too had to be somewhat restrained. Culturally informed indeed, but not as show-stopping.

Emotional power in Ronan’s character in particular, her silences throughout the film at times were just as salient as her words. The scene in the Wigmore Hall where Florence page turns for a piano duo is still on my mind, with the music sending her into a brief reverie, and on return, her eyes are tear-streaked. I didn’t even mind about the poor air-violining (a musician that sees their own instrument being played on the screen can think of nothing else! the violin she was using was pimped with some lovely Evah Pirazzi Gold strings…the prop department had an eye for detail in this production), I really believed Ronan’s blinkered desire for her quartet to succeed.

Regarding those lovely violin strings (which I have lovingly decorated my own violin with), the soundtrack to this film is definitely a high point. One of my favourite tracks plays during Chloe’s scene — I refuse to describe this, inclination to go and watch it — Esther Yoo’s “dark aristocratic tone” (Gramophone Magazine) blends well in to this suffocating world (an in-credible violinist in every sense of the word, an eloquent voice on social media as well, check her out!), and Dan Jones’ thoughtful, incredibly ponderous and elegiac soundtrack ebbs and crests throughout the film, almost continually present, hauntingly so.

In short, I did enjoy this film. I really genuinely did. If anything, it draws up the sheer necessity of us, linguists or not, interrogating our language and appreciating the spectrum of people that are outside our front doors — love is expressible in more ways than just through sexuality, is the (hopeful, if devastating) concluding cadence I took from this film.

On Chesil Beach runs until the 7th of June in the Queen’s Film Theatre, Belfast (in other cinemas further afield also).

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