Ian McEwan’s novel On Chesil Beach and the movie based on it (which he also wrote) tell a story set in 1962 England that could only work as a period piece, for it is based on the premise that society expects newlyweds to be virgins, and that many of them actually are. The big-screen debut of theater director Dominic Cooke, this lovely, wistful adult drama is full of introspection and memories, much of the action confined to a single room, but it never feels stagnant thanks to intimate performances by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle.
Young Edward Mayhew and the new Mrs. Florence Mayhew (nee Ponting), a literal blushing bride, have just arrived at their quaint honeymoon cottage at the title location when we meet them. Flanked by tittering room-service waiters, the happy couple make small talk over dinner to distract themselves from their nerves, and the movie provides flashbacks to their courtship at Oxford to give us some background on the impending consummation.
Florence, a classical musician, is a bit of a square and a prude, even by the standards of the day. Her snobbish family doesn’t approve of working-class Edward, a decent, rock ‘n’ roll-loving fellow whose own family is rattled by his mother’s deteriorating mental condition. By the time Edward and Florence nervously make their way to the marriage bed, we’ve seen enough flashbacks to have some idea (though there’s still more information to come) of why the event is such a humiliating disaster.
There’s a sort of voyeurism to the film. We are privy to Edward and Florence’s most intimate moments, yet the participants themselves cannot talk about them and would be mortified if they knew we’d been watching. Their refusal to communicate about delicate matters is maddening to a modern viewer but sadly understandable in the context of a prim, tight-lipped society where the only sex education a young lady gets is from a clinical instruction manual.
The film loses some power when it tries to establish tangible causes for Florence’s sexual hang-ups; in this case, generalities about the culture of the time are more effective than specifics. But Ronan and Howle are fantastic together and separately, both characters’ backstories earning our sympathy through the tender performances. We aren’t asked to choose sides, only to share the heartbreak of young love thwarted by factors beyond their control.