2018 has been a year of disappointing sexual encounters for Saoirse Ronan. Not in real life — at least, I hope not — but onscreen. The botched virginity incident at the hands of high school fuccboi Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) in Lady Bird was followed by the dangerous seduction of Nina Zarechnaya by Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) in The Seagull, which ultimately leads to her demise and downfall. This leads us to her turn as Florence Ponting in Dominic Cooper's On Chesil Beach, which takes a look at the rapid disintegration of a young couple's relationship after their honeymoon goes horribly awry.
Taking place mostly in 1962, in an England teetering between the staid and proper 1950s and the very beginning of the looming sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s, this adaptation of Ian McEwan's 2007 novel starts out as a story of young love. Florence and her husband of only a few hours, Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), have traveled to a seaside hotel to consummate their union. It's awkward from the start, albeit in a sweet, repressed way: the chortling waiters serve them watered-down wine that Edward pretends to love in order to impress his new bride, every moment feeling like a preamble for the moment the two eventually end up in bed and trade-in this shy, tiptoeing phase in the relationship for real intimacy.
Through a series of flashbacks, we get to know the two, both individually and together. Florence is a violinist with dreams of packing houses with her small string quartet, is ambitious and driven when she meets Edward, a smart grad student with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and a tendency to get into fights. The difference in their upbringing may appear small to Americans, but it's meaningful in this case. She comes from a stiff-upper-lip middle class family in which she's the rebellious one. Her parents have probably never held hands in public, much less discussed sex in any meaningful way. His background is a bit more freewheeling, but also dark: his father, a schoolteacher, is kind and supportive, while his mother, who suffered a traumatic brain injury years before, has a penchant for shedding her clothes in public. Nevertheless, Edward has witnessed real love between his parents, but also the tragedy that can come hand-in-hand with that.
Everything in this film, from the set design of their stuffy, rinky dink beach hotel to the costumes is meant to suggest the very ordinary existence of two people stuck in an era with no outlet for sexuality or even personality. Edward and Florence's impromptu meet-cute, at an Oxford University nuclear disarmament meeting, suggests a willingness to break free from their parents' conventional mores. There's an immediate attraction, and a quick courtship that's a little difficult to fathom coming from today's era, but feels true to the time. And perhaps because they are of their time, the two can't ever quite figure out how to get where they want to go, at least not together. Throughout their relationship, and even more so during the honeymoon scenes, Florence is hiding a tense secret with roots in a past trauma that's only ever hinted at: She doesn't want sex. Ever. When she finally shares this with her husband, after a particularly excruciating thwarted sexual encounter, he can't accept it. But can their relationship survive?
As in Atonement, another McEwan adaptation (which launched Ronan's career), sex is both the sublime goal and the demise of the relationship between these two people. And despite all the other things that make up their life together (his support of her musical career, their shared political views, and passion for each other's thoughts and feelings), it isn't quite enough to overcome the absence of what Edward has been taught is the one fundamental characteristic of married life.
And, as is often the case, sex isn't just about sex. In one flashback scene, Florence's sister walks in on her anxiously reading a sex manual, which explains that "women are like doorways, men can enter through them." This kind of anatomically correct if bland description of intercourse reveals a deeper level to the dynamic between Edward and Florence. Through her, he seeks to find himself, to escape his own distressing family life. She can save him if she lets him in, and she's choosing not to. In her own way, the path Florence is suggesting is too progressive for either of them.
It's a delicate story that would be impossible to adapt for film were it not for the strength of the actors involved. Ronan tackles complex and rarely talked about facets of female sexuality with depth and feeling, while Howle (who, as an attractive British boy, made a mandatory appearance in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk) toes the line between hurt puppy dog and inadvertent oppressor with impressive dexterity. Their chemistry is palpable, which makes the hurt and betrayal all that much harder to bear.
The one weakness in the film is its ending, which feels a little too La La Land for its own good, but it's a small price to pay for a moving tale that explores the meaning of love, sex, and whether the two can ever really be separated.