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"ON CHESIL BEACH"
(2018) (Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: As various flashbacks show the moments leading up to it, a young couple of the early 1960s are nervous and awkward about consummating their marriage on their wedding night.
PLOT:
It's 1962 and Florence Ponting (SAOIRSE RONAN) and Edward Mayhew (BILLY HOWLE) have just gotten married and checked into a seaside hotel for their honeymoon. Both appear awkward and nervous while having dinner and then afterward, with thoughts of consummating their marriage obviously on their minds. As this occurs, we see various flashbacks to the beginnings of their relationship.

Then, Florence lived with her prim and proper parents, Violet (EMILY WATSON) and Geoffrey (SAMUEL WEST), and sister, Ruth (BEBE CAVE), and enjoyed the comforts of wealth. Edward, on the other hand, grew with far less affluence with his two younger sisters, Anne (ANNA BURGESS) and Harriet (MIA BURGESS), and father, Lionel (ADRIAN SCARBOROUGH), who must also contend with the aftereffects of a past brain injury to the family's matriarch, Marjorie (ANNE-MARIE DUFF).

As we see the couple interacting with each other and their families during their courtship, the film repeatedly returns to the present day and the awkward attempts at consummating the marriage.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
I'm going to guess that it's nowhere near as prevalent now as it was in the less-informed past, but arranged marriages are still a thing in today's world. And I'm also going to assume there were and still are various reasons and explanations for that, but it's a pretty horrific scenario if you ask me, particularly for the woman.

Beyond being viewed and handled as a commodity that can be traded (in the past in exchange for land and such), there's the overriding aspect of being forced to have sex with someone you don't know or like, let alone love. And not just once, but for a lifetime until old age, death, divorce (if allowed) or putting one's foot down (ditto), so to speak puts an end to such an obligation.

Granted, it's nowhere near the same, but I've similarly wondered what it's like for couples who wait until marriage to consummate their romantic union. What happens if they discover on their wedding night that they're not compatible in any number of ways in that regard? Or if one has little to no sex drive?

Yes, the "wait until we're married" notion is mostly a rarity nowadays, and thus few end up surprised, disappointed or even angry at such a discovery. Perhaps that's why British novelist Ian McEwan set his 2007 novella, "On Chesil Beach" in 1962 when such abstinence was more common and when a problem in the bedroom for a newly married couple led to even bigger issues for the overall marriage.

McEwan has now adapted that work into a screenplay for a movie of the same name. I haven't read the original work, but at just 166 pages, one's initial thought is that there might not be enough material present to turn into a feature-length film without feeling as if things might have been padded.

That notion comes to fruition as a slew of flashbacks serves as a cinematic version of coitus interruptus as the young couple (played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle) is obviously nervous and uncomfortable during dinner in their hotel room about "doing the deed" later. But even before the "action" starts to take place, the first of many flashbacks arrives, presumably present to give us some insight into the characters and their current state of mind.

Perhaps it's the scene where Edward views his mom (Anne-Marie Duff) standing fully nude in the backyard that's left a lasting impression on him about such views of skin and sexuality. Or maybe it's one where we see Florence as a young girl sailing with her father (Samuel West) and the memory of that brings a tear to her eye in the present. Did he sexually abuse her and thus forever affect her view of related behavior?

We never really get an answer from McEwan or director Dominic Cooke (making his feature debut) as the evening progresses and the young couple finally decide to get it over with, only to be interrupted once more by yet additional flashbacks showing mostly less traumatic familial moments as well as how the couple met and so on.

Then things go badly in the present, a revelation comes out, and things don't look good then and in immediate scenes thereafter. That's followed by two jump forwards in time, one thirteen years after the fact and the next thirty-two more after that, all centered on what's happened to Edward since then.

While anything but original, I like the notion of that and the observed ramifications down the line of one such revelation and decisions made immediately thereafter. And having read the summary of the novella, it seems that plays out to a greater extent and thus presumably better there than it does here where the "whatever happened to" sequences are too abrupt, have way too much of a time gap between the two, and are all one-sided.

Despite those objections, the film still has a certain pull and engagement factor, and Ronan is as good as usual. To me, Howle ends up being more interesting in the 1975 and 2007 sequences than in the rest where his character feels not yet fully developed (although, I suppose, that could be the point). From a production standpoint, everything looks good. So, I'm giving "On Chesil Beach" a slight recommendation, but can't help but wonder how better it might have been if afforded as much or perhaps even more time going forward than back into the past. It rates as a 5.5 out of 10.




Reviewed May 17, 2018 / Posted May 25, 2018


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