On Chesil Beach (2018)

“I need to know your worst side.”

Similar to one of those awkward sex ed high school classes, On Chesil Beach means well with its message whilst mostly fumbling the entire delivery. Its approach to sexual repression is clumsy, scatter-brained, and devoid of a love believable enough to support the anemic romantic duo at its center. So as the film dances back and forth in an ever-changing timeline with two left feet, and while it has the looks of a luxurious and grounded period piece romance, the picture simply lacks a soul worth knowing or holding onto. On Chesil Beach is as plain and frigid a romantic drama as I’ve seen this year.

Almost nothing feels authentically realized in the love affair between the commoner Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and the affluent Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) on the UK island of Jersey. Their affectations are stalled by outside pressures leaking into the cracks of their hearts. And yet they persist, date, meet the parents and shake up the societal ranks by becoming man and wife. On Chesil Beach is a puzzling film because it manages to mildly engage our interests despite the incredibly lazy and lackadaisical foreplay it feigns as action. The picture does this without setting a line to hook our hearts, and that grievance inexcusably lands in the realm of the surface level. It’s a beautiful looking film that never quite rings true.

What I found so frustrating – and what I believe to be the ultimate undoing of the film – was the narrative structure. As per the title, we know that something is bound to happen on that pebbled stretch of beach, and the script’s decision to tease us practically goes for naught. Perhaps it’s anti-climatic by design; after all, the film is about introducing individuals to the act of sex. But the story also includes references to classical musical cues and undertones, to the beauty of massive octave shifts which signal sharp movement and duress and emotion. On Chesil Beach attempts to imitate such distinct and differing beats through the written word and the result is all too cumbersome. I admire the movie’s need to feel different. However, sometimes a straight path with a slow and steady approach can win the race, too.

On Chesil Beach at least looks stunning through the lens of the great Sean Bobbitt; he has photographed some of the most grounded and visually vivid films of the past decade, yet despite the strong performances from an uneasy Ronan and a nervous Howle, Dominic Cooke’s direction never takes the hint to force this stuffy material to leap off the comfort of the page. Whatever amount of heartache and regret is meant to be communicated in Ian McEwan’s novel has been lost in his adaption of the very same material on the screen, and On Chesil Beach turns into a sore reflection of its romantic duo’s worst attributes. It’s overlong, silently subdued, and so internally inert that what’s meant to be sappy and soft instead comes across as stodgy and stiff. This isn’t a bad film, yet I’m disappointed to know that I can’t help but wonder how it isn’t any better.

“Are you going to stand there the whole time?”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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