I arrived 20 minutes early to the Soho movieplex because I was terrified, terrified that like every other place in Manhattan, it would be unbelievably crowded. Somehow, the Tuesday 10:45 p.m. screening of “On Chesil Beach” was surprisingly unattended. So I was left to sit alone in the third row of the empty theater as I snacked quietly on the Apple Jacks I managed to smuggle in from the corner deli. The film began with stunning, expansive landscape shots of the seaside and the sweeping tide and I felt instantly transported to the English coast, a place I happened to be just one year ago. I was immersed in the scenery as the score hummed a familiar and exciting tune. The film, like the book it was adapted from, has an almost Freudian, sexual attachment to music.
While the frigid and naïve Florence (Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”) has no trouble making sweet love to the strings of her violin, she has a harder time getting intimate with her new husband, the fumbling and endearing country boy, Edward (Billy Howle, “The Seagull”). The music that plays such a large role in the film, including everything from Chuck Berry to Mozart, is noticeably absent from the awkward and cringe-worthy attempts at sexual relations, leaving the viewer to sit through the uncomfortable slurps and slobber that occupy the realm of intimacy. The awkwardness is tangible, making the viewer cringe as if they were being forced to watch the most uncomfortable porno of all time.
The film takes place over the wedding night of young Florence and Edward as they awkwardly attempt to play a married couple. Ian McEwan adapted the script from his own 2007 novel of the same name, making the film feel less like an adaptation and more like a visual companion to the novel itself. The quick read is sometimes referred to as a novella for its length and its short tale of woe. Like the book, the film expertly weaves the past with the present to ensure that the film reads more like a cohesive story and less like a series of disconnected flashbacks. However, the nuances of the novel are sometimes lost in the film’s desperate attempt to create a tragic love story of youthful stupidity. The couple’s ignorance, while frustrating at times, represents the time before the sexual liberation movement. The story takes place in 1962 England, a time when sex was a bad word and wives were taught to be submissive homemakers for their husbands. The couple is most certainly in love as evinced by the romantic montages that occupy most of the stunning flashbacks, yet they struggle to express their love in a physical way, prisoners to their stifled sexuality.
The viewer plays the role of voyeur, looking in at the most intimate and private moments. The awkwardness is emphasized through purposeful camera work, highlighting the discomfort of the young virgins through a tapping foot or a squeezed knuckle. Ronan and Howle skillfully portray the self-conscious and innocent newlyweds. The multi-faceted characters that McEwan has crafted are incredibly present in the young actors’ performances.
Where the book feels like a revolutionary and unique form of storytelling, utilizing time and perspective to add depth and meaning to the wedding night drama, the film ultimately feels average and expected.