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Last Night I Watched: ‘On Chesil Beach’

The film On Chesil Beach is mainly set apart from Chesil Beach. Mentally, however, the location – made up of gravel and shingle – is a powerful metaphor for the discomfort that defines the film. Based on Ian McEwan’s novel, with the screenplay written by the very same author, the film is a sombre, moving analysis of what it means to love. More importantly, the film analyses how an individual’s expectation of love so differs from the reality.

These themes culminate together one 1960s evening on the day a couple have married. Originating from different social classes, Florence Ponting (Saorise Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) are a couple in love beginning their honeymoon in Dorset. The tension within their relationship was obvious from the start. Even when the waiters were delivering their meal, the sense of nerves, anticipation and expectation were obvious from their facial expressions and awkward silences. The audience were made to feel discomforted and on edge.

For this was the 1960s. Though the novel was published in 2007, McEwan transports readers and viewers back decades to a time of different values. He creates anticipation for the night of a wedding and the inevitable consummation. The awkwardness of the dinner, combined with the rough weather, harsh climate and sense of unease all provide the perfect storm for events to slip out of the character’s control. Inevitably, the use of flashbacks is required.

The characters are presently in their hotel room, McEwan cleverly weaves their back stories into the narrative to help viewers understand why the characters behave in certain ways. This allows the audience to learn about the importance of class, something which is still relevant today.

The film is wrapped around human emotion and raw experiences

Florence, for example, is a student at Oxford and comes from an esteemed household where her parents Violent (Emily Watson) and Geoffrey (Samuel West) have great expectations about who she will marry. Given her main hobby is being part of a string quartet, her path to personal success, when class was such a huge factor, is viewed as without question.

Edward, on the other hand, comes from a different background. It is clear his existence isn’t quite as privileged, though he is hardly poor. Gaining a first from University College London, he is desperate to tell someone. Over the course of the film, we learn how his mother Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff) has learning difficulties as a result of a head injury.

While his father Lionel (Adrian Scarborough) works desperately hard, his absence means there is nobody for him to celebrate his academic achievements with. All stories, to some extent, are based on coincidences, and that is no less true here. We watch Edward meeting Florence for the first time at a Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) meeting and the rest is history.

The film is wrapped around human emotion and raw experiences. Both McEwan and the actors have brilliantly managed to explore the expectations towards individuals in love, most notably how striking and impactful these were in the 1960s. Much of it is based on the fear of failing to meet expectations. For the characters, this is partially linked to their social duties and responsibility towards one another.

Set gender roles with an authoritative male and submissive female were far stronger with Billy Howle excellently performing how someone fails to meet this expectation. It is when Edward Mayhew is most vulnerable that he seeks to blame his wife. However, their fear is also based on societal expectations and the unknown. The couple are meant to be at the start of an exciting moment in their lives. Instead, it is fraught with anxiety.

the atmosphere is so volatile at points that it is impossible not to question why they married in the first place

At times, On Chesil Beach reminded me of the 2017 film La La Land. Due to some of the underlying themes that both share. Most obviously, both films feature an inability to communicate honestly. While, on the surface, the relationships of characters appear stable, there is something far deeper and uncomfortable at stake. Indeed, the atmosphere is so volatile at points that it is impossible not to question why they married in the first place. Running through both films is is the question of what could have been, compared to the reality.

On Chesil Beach understands the importance of action developing slowly. So much of modern film is based around events with quick editing. It is therefore refreshing to see a movie take its time with discussions and character development. This is not to say the film drags on or feels long. At only 100 minutes, it allows us to see how the characters live.

Changing time periods, going into the future as well as the past, demonstrate what the characters missed out on with one another. On Chesil Beach represents then the failure of reconciliation. A conflict occurs, Edward and Florence cannot communicate their emotions and move forward. Despite Edward being adept at coping with his mother, which Florence manages masterfully, the characters only fall into silence when facing their own flaws.

The film then is circular: it concludes On Chesil Beach, just like the opening. More importantly though, the character’s emotional development and connections by the end are no further forward than at the start. That these emotions of love, fear and regret transcend generations – indeed, are the bedrock of being human – make On Chesil Beach a worthy, dignified film audiences that accept vulnerability can appreciate.

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