2/10 The terrible cinematic execution of On Chesil Beach is enough for a negative review in its own right, but we’d also be remiss to look past the film’s horrible underlying message.
On Chesil Beach opens as two newlyweds, Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan), walk along the titular beach. Both of them are asexual — Ponting in the sense that she’s disgusted by sex and has no interest in it, and Mayhew in that he is the human opposite of an erection. As they spend the afternoon awkwardly negotiating their first sexual encounter, the film flashes back across their upbringing and relationship.
From the very first frame of On Chesil Beach, its infuriating visual motif is established — vast swaths of compositional space. The frame is mostly empty. You spend the majority of the movie looking at nothing. Somewhere between half and two thirds of the vast majority of the shots are empty space.
In some scenes, this is obviously meant to be an artistic expression of the gap between our central lovers, but much more often, they’ve just not filled the frame. Even closeups, which are far too frequent, don’t fill the frame with the detail that’s so important as to deserve its own special shot.
Over the course of the film, I get the distinct impression that they didn’t actually think these details were important, it’s just that first-time director Dominic Cooke doesn’t know shots exist outside of masters, pushes and close-ups, and they stuffed the film full of them because they were out of ideas.
I’m really tired of movies where the plot is driven by immaturity that I can no longer sympathize with. Mayhew and Ponting, despite a full courtship and developing a deep comfort with one another, have never had even the simplest conversation about sex, and this obvious oversight is so great that it poses a serious threat to their marriage just hours after they’ve exchanged their vows. It’s sad to see and may have been sympathetic in 1962 when this is set, but it is simply a ridiculous conflict to hinge an entire movie around in 2018. Myself and hopefully anyone watching will know better, and I have no interest in spending a glacial 110 minutes rooting around with characters specifically because they don’t.
On Chesil Beach also undermines itself every now and then by playing their awkwardness off for laughs, taking time off as the dramatic keystone that it should be.
At first, the device of backfilling the characters’ development is interesting, but it doesn’t have much of a point and is more just a switch-up to disguise how uneventful the movie is. It starts to lose track of its framing device as it goes on, and the only vaguely interesting thing about this story quietly peters out.
We’ll need to get into spoilers to bridge the gap from bad to offensive. In case anyone is actually still interested in seeing this, spoilers below.
On Chesil Beach has a clear message, and it’s fucking reprehensible. After they finally have the talk, Mayhew leaves Ponting, and their marriage is annulled for failure to consummate. Then, for 20 excruciating more minutes of screentime, we get to see Mayhew grow old moping that he didn’t take Ponting up on her offer of just staying married and taking sexual urges out on other women.
Mayhew has a lot of growing up to do and certainly could have been less of a jerk — everyone’s ugly in a breakup, what are you going to do — but he deserves to pursue a sexually fulfilling love life. The idea that he’d spend 45 years hopelessly pining after a college sweetheart with whom he correctly assessed he never could have been happy because they really really loved each other, and that’s got to be enough to overcome something silly like sexual incompatibility, comes off like a childish asexual power fantasy.
What takes the movie to a truly appalling place, however, is the possibility that Ponting’s aversion to sex may stem from childhood sexual abuse, which is lazily dangled over the audience like a fat steak marinated in Freudian excuses. With this afterthought, Ian McEwan, who wrote both the script and the 2007 novella on which it is based, ties On Chesil Beach to one of Western Literature’s most disturbing heterosexist tendencies by portraying any deviation from straightness as the result of sexual trauma. Ponting’s sexual orientation is no longer a valid way of being, but instead the result of psychological damage. It undermines her character, the sexuality of everyone else like her and the central conflict of her own story.
And it very much was an afterthought — McEwan said about the book version of the scene in 2008, “In the final draft it’s there as a shadowy fact for readers to make of it what they will. I didn’t want to be too deterministic about this. Many readers may miss it altogether, which is fine.”
Not fine. Not fine at all.
On Chesil Beach is terrible art in service of some terrible ideas, and can only be applauded for the fact that it eventually ends.