Thursday, 16 August 2018

On Chesil Beach (2018) - Movie Review

The plot: Newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) are spending their first night together as husband and wife at a hotel on Chesil Beach. As they prepare to consummate their marriage, they reminisce on how they met, how they fell in love and, ultimately, why that moment has them both feeling extremely nervous.

Between Brooklyn, Loving Vincent and Lady Bird, it seems like Saoirse Ronan could be cast in a romance with a bowl of noodles and she would still be able to sell it like the most earnest love story ever told. That track record holds true here, even though she is stepping into far more apprehensive territory than before, as she wears the character’s raw emotionality and glass-shattering tension like a second skin. Opposite her, Howle is rather extraordinary considering this is his first outing in a lead role, echoing Ronan’s visible unease with notes of sheer frustration that end up adding a heavy punch to the film’s narrative.
Emily Watson as Florence’s mother mainly represents a lot of the bigger, real-world politics of the era and how even that feels like a walk in the park compared to this kind of romantic situation, while Samuel West as the father acts as Peak Male Inadequacy in both affable and potentially unsettling ways. Anne-Marie Duff as Edward’s mother makes for one of the more surprisingly tasteful depictions of brain damage I’ve seen in a while (even with the awkward nudity), and Bebe Cave as Florence’s sister adds another layer of youthful curiosity to the already-heady mixture generated by our leads.

When it comes to romance, tales of the sheer sledgehammer to the heart that is first love are nothing new. However, I can scarcely recall a film that delved into the subject in this manner, that being focusing primarily on the first sexual encounter. This is the kind of narrative beat that gets relegated to a single scene in most coming-of-age stories, and even those predominantly about sex end up more fixated on sheer vulgarity than anything resembling reality.
Here, even when the film gets into the raw biology of sex, it’s all done in a respectfully tasteful manner. Director Dominic Cooke, who worked exclusively in theatre before this, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame, 12 Years A Slave), feel like a perfect match here in how that combination of more theatrical, monologue-driven delivery and the use of extended camera takes ends up creating a lot of space, yet maintaining that intimacy. From this, Ronan and Howle’s chemistry together hits cute, awkward and even angry in precise doses, giving their shared story the push it needs to be the driving force of the film.

The biggest technical highlight here is the editing by Nick Fenton, who previously worked on the international soul-crusher that is Una. Now, the narrative itself is framed around Florence and Edward’s wedding night, intercut with flashbacks covering key moments in the relationship building up to that point. However, the effect this leaves can often feel like the audience is being pulled out of those flashbacks back into the main story, given how sudden and lurching the cuts can be. As much as part of me wants to rag on this for how jarring it can feel at times, at the end of the day, the effect ends up doing the production as a whole a major service.
It ends up playing into the feelings of tension and unease associated with initial sexual encounters, with the characters seemingly trying to distract themselves from the moment out of how uncomfortable they feel within it. As such, they ask each other questions about their respective pasts, but after each journey into those pasts, we still end up in the same, horrifically tense situation. The mind tends to distract itself in the face of anxious scenarios, and considering how this film portrays the act of sex, it feels warranted in a rather Wild way as a look into the psyches of the characters.

Which leads us into the film’s overall perspective on sex and how it factors into relationships, and it’s here where the core romance ends up bearing the ripest fruit. While the production at large toys with music as thematic metaphor (classical music set against 60’s-era rock ‘n’ roll to show the class divide between our leads), the biggest gems come with Ian McEwan’s scripting. It’s a period depiction of sexual mannerisms, in particular the levels of miscommunication that surround them and how they affect people, showing that a lot of the apprehension concerning sex ends up being informed by everything that we don’t know going into it.

By sheer biological fact, society puts a lot of emphasis on sex as a means of continuing our species… but the sheepishness within society when it comes to discussing it in any meaningful way ends up working against that drive. As we grow older and get closer to the age where we can give consent, how sex ends up being over-romanticised can mess with our heads in certain ways. We build it up to unreachable expectations in our own heads, not helped by how losing one’s virginity is often viewed as the moment that person becomes an adult (more typically with men, which only complicates things further), and even worse still, we can end up conflating sexual desire with feelings of love. That combination ends up making it feel like we need to have sex in order to validate relationships, which considering how humdrum a lot of first-times end up being, can add a feeling of personal failure to the mix if it doesn’t live up to the expectation. That placement of guilt for not “doing it properly” is one of the reasons why ‘virgin’ is often used as a pejorative; no one wants to look like the person who doesn’t know what they’re talking about in a group of people who can at least pretend that they do.

What all of this boils down to is a showing of how that hormonal drive that can bring young lovers together needs to be tempered with some form of realistic expectation. In the Internet age, where discovering what sex actually involves is arguably all too easy, that seems like a foregone conclusion but bear in mind that sheer lack of information isn’t much better. In fact, with how much Florence and Edward struggle with their feelings for each other, it could potentially be worse. Especially since, between Edward’s anger issues and Florence’s history with abuse, unhealthy patterns can feel nothing but natural when no real alternative is presented. It’s difficult to get a real grasp on what to expect or possibly how a person is meant to feel during sex when they can’t talk about it. Sex is inherently basic in concept, but love? That thing that lust can be so easily interpreted as? That feeling that can make a person sink into the floor if they don’t feel equipped to express it? Not nearly as simple, and much like the myriad of minds that have tried to pin it down over the centuries, this film doesn’t offer any concrete answers. Just a very, very heavy third act that ends up giving the characters, and the audience, an uncomfortable amount to think about.

All in all, this is a very poignant and soul-stirring look at first love and all the incredibly rocky points that entails, particularly in regards to sex. The acting is absolutely solid, with Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle making for an excellent central couple, the production values allow for space and symphony to add to the thematic textures of the script, and the script itself delves into how expectations, and cultural inability to clarify those expectations, can have disastrous effects on human relationships. It’s the kind of drama that would make for a restless but fitting double feature with the likes of Blockers in how it broaches sexuality, especially with how progressive the ideas can get here, and it deserves an equal amount of respect for how it handles the topic.


  1. Do you take requests?

    1. So long as it was made in 2012 or later, I'll consider it.

      I may make an exception if the film in question is interesting enough, but I try not to make a habit of it.

    2. Could you review the Baahubali films?