DOMINIC Cooke’s adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel and screenplay deals deftly and credibly with an important matter that hopefully the sexual revolution has now overtaken and modified.
The courtship between Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan) began at Oxford on the day they met and each learned of being awarded a First, his in British History, hers in Music and Violin. In 1962, they go after their afternoon wedding to a nearby hotel for dinner and what normally happens on the first night of a new marriage.
It’s not a success.
Why? Two attractive and intelligent people have approached the moment with joyous memories fresh in their minds of vows taken earlier that day. Edward has read passages aloud to her from a book nowadays probably out of print titled “Love, Sex and Marriage”, a useful description of the mechanics of the matter but with none of the reasons why on 23 out of every 28 days women can copulate simply for the pleasures. His performance lacks finesse or passion. Florence doesn’t like the experience and runs out. Edward finds her sitting alone on Chesil Beach where the film’s crucial passage takes place, a two-hander confrontation taking no prisoners as it reveals where the shortcomings in the relationship have been waiting for their moment to emerge.
Coming to that point and its thereafter forms a significant proportion of the film’s time, remembering university days, families, discovery of shared enjoyments and differences. Those passages involve a cast of some of Britain’s most skilled actors whom you’ll recognise from supporting casts of TV series and spend time trying to remember their real names.
Today’s brides can and should be better informed about what to expect on their wedding nights. Their new husbands may or may not be. For men, it comes down to more than merely knowing where to find the clitoris. We guys need to know why it’s there and what it expects us to do with it. Indeed, couples need a better-than-working knowledge of all the bits of each other that are plugged in to the pleasure network. The denouement of “On Chesil Beach” will make men of good conscience weep, as indeed it should.
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