Review: “On Chesil Beach” Brilliant acting, Unsatisfying Story

“On Chesil Beach” is a British drama film based on the 2007 Booker Prize-nominated novella by Ian McEwan who also helped adapt the story for the film. After watching the trailer, I was excited. I’ve heard from others that Saoirse Ronan is an incredible actress. For one reason or another, most likely because I’m an active, busy person, I haven’t actually seen her in anything. Just her reputation was enough to make the film appealing but I also thought the subject matter sounded appealing. After watching the film, I found myself loving the performances, the way the music highlighted the emotions of the characters but was left puzzled over the pacing and character motivations.

The film is the exploration of Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward’s (Billy Howle) relationship in the sixties. Told with the use of flashbacks, the story delves into their romance. We meet them shortly after their marriage, awkward, young and on their honeymoon, their first night in their hotel. As we watch them stumble over each other, we realize that the pair are unfamiliar with the physicality of sex nor do they seem terribly at ease with the act.

Flashbacks allow us to see a happy couple who meet accidentally when Edward travels to London. He is studying history while Florence is studying music, performing in a quartet. They come from very different backgrounds. Edward is from a working family whose mother has brain damage while Florence’s family is upper class, strict and conservative, especially her father who is controlling. We watch the relationship bud and grow, eventually exploding in their honeymoon night as issues both have avoided cause conflict between the pair.

One of the elements I enjoyed the most was the way music was woven into every scene of this movie. Not only does the music highlight the emotions each character is feeling but the discussion of musical tastes and how music affects each person is important to understanding the dynamic of their relationship. Florence is a classically trained musician who loves classical music and really doesn’t enjoy modern music whereas Edward loves Chuck Berry, introducing Florence to music she’s never heard before. The way music flows through their interactions also builds the emotions of the movie and heightens the drama of the final scenes. The film itself feels composed much like a classical music piece, layered piece by piece until it comes to a dramatic conclusion. That level of artistry was beautiful and compelling.

The performances were the other critical component to this film. Billy Howle portrayed Edward with sensitivity and depth. The chemistry between him and Saoirse Ronan is intense. Even when the pair are fighting, the emotions are engaging and dynamic. Even in the most awkward scenes when you wonder why the pair are together, there is a sweetness between the two that can’t be ignored. Saoirse brings her own strength to her role. She is equal parts brilliant, creative and independent and yet, doubting her own skills, her father’s treatment at times weakening her at the wrong moments. The pair are incredible, exploring their characters in unexpected ways.

Despite the acting, there are issues with the film. One of the biggest problems is that the writing fails to even really hint at what Florence’s true issue is, not just that she’s uncomfortable with sexual intimacy but that she truly doesn’t even desire it. If this had been better developed, this could have been a revelatory character, developing discussion about aspects to female sexuality that no one ever discusses. It touches upon those ideas but doesn’t give us enough. The cracks in their relationship come out of the blue and you don’t understand why until they confront each other. It wastes the potential of Florence and diminishes her role in the film.

Beyond the issues with the character of Florence,  there were also a significant issue with the pacing. The film begins with the main characters getting married and the tells most of their romance via flashbacks. The flashbacks kept me focused on analyzing the film rather than being immersed in the story. In addition, there were hints of story with Florence’s father that weren’t clear and distracted from the main story between the two. The pacing was too slow and the average viewer may not want to wait for the resolution. That said, when we reached the conclusion,  I definitely got the gut punch of emotion, bittersweet and poignant, the two sharing a moment even at the end. Without that sweep of emotion, the film would have failed but it does bring it all to a final resolution that brought tears to my eyes.

I truly feel that this film has some beautiful moments. From Florence engaging with Edward’s mother, (Anne-Marie Duff) to Edward describing their relationship, there are some scenes that are compelling and beautiful. The acting is incredibly good. I can see why Saoirse Ronan is considered such a stellar actress. Even with information missing on her character, the performance was flawless as was Billy Howle’s. If you like either of them or are interested in an exploration of sixties morality and sexuality, this might appeal to you. It is interesting and does have an emotional ending. It didn’t satisfy me as much as it could have but the music and acting made up for the pacing and lack on Florence’s character.

Rating: 3 out of 5 songs

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