Saying On Chesil Beach is about sex (or the lack thereof), is a bit like saying Phantom Thread was about fashion. A great film, just like any other piece of fine art, should be neither limited nor defined by its frame. On Chesil Beach, featuring yet another wholly subtle achievement from Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, Ladybird), is as rich as its performances are delicate. In much of what comes across as perfect ordinariness in Chesil, there are moments of perfect artistry.
To be clear, Chesil's through line is, indeed, a heartbreaking reminder that one partner's carnal knowledge easily unsettles another's. But at the heart of this fragile and sometimes intoxicating story is a new consideration that confirms young love is as awkward as a beach is long.
It's the summer of 1962, and young Florence (Ronan), a classical violinist, is deeply in love with Edward (the equally appealing Billy Howle, who appeared in Dunkirk), a graduate student of history. The newlyweds honeymoon on England's Dorset seashore, along rocky Chesil Beach. Soon after checking into their modest hotel room, they slowly unpack, share small kisses and reminisce about the day's earlier wedding ceremony. Florence looks into Edward's eyes, kisses him on the cheek and softly speaks of the names of the children they'll have. Room service arrives, a waiter pours a glass of wine and Edward says it's delicious. Little does he know that the waiter spilled half the bottle in the hotel hallway and refilled it back to the top with water. So it is with the illusions of wedding nights.
Without sharing too much detail, the wedding night ends badly. In fact, it barely begins. Florence is very much a virgin while Edward's over-excited sexual expectations are clumsy at best. This is where Chesil Beach departs the well-worn path that most other books and films have taken on sexual imbalance. This is not a glib, teasing story about intimacy; nor is it a will-they-or-won't-they melodrama. On Chesil Beach is an uncommon passion play that will most likely haunt you for some time. It has been a full eight months since I first saw this film and I still can't shake it.
Now, a word about Ronan, now 24 years old. Time and again, she surpasses expectations and has vaulted to one of the most in-demand actresses of her, or any other, generation. On Chesil Beach reunites her with Ian McEwan, who penned Atonement, for which Ronan earned her first of three Oscar nominations, the most recent being for last year's Ladybird. McEwan also wrote the screenplay for On Chesil Beach, based on his own novel of the same name, which was selected for the 2007 Booker Prize shortlist. On Chesil Beach isn't Ronan's only major motion picture coming out this year. In late June, she'll co-star in a new screen adaptation of Chekov's The Seagull, also alongside Howle. Plus, come December, she'll share the screen with Margot Robbie in the much-anticipated Mary Queen of Scots.