On Chesil Beach

Jun 14, 2018

Beautiful, melancholic art-house romance.

On Chesil Beach

Grade: A

Director:  Dominic Cooke (The Hollow Crown)

Screenplay: Ian McEwan (Atonement) from his novel

Cast: Saoirse Ronan (Hannah), Billy Howle (Dunkirk)

Rating: R

Runtime: 1 hr 50 min

by John DeSando

“Little lamb,
      Here I am;
      Come and lick
      My white neck;
      Let me pull
      Your soft wool;
      Let me kiss
      Your soft face;
Merrily, merrily we welcome in the year.” William Blake, from Songs of Innocence

Set in 1962, On Chesil Beach is far from 1963 Beach Party with Frankie Avalon and other pre sexual revolution aquatic shenanigans. Chesil is a tightly-wound story of a young Brit couple, Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle), just married and beyond awkward on the wedding night: dangerously innocent.

It’s not a comedy, for most of the film is framed by their uncertain movements as he tries to loosen her up (a major challenge) and she tries to get in the mood. Based on a novel and screenplay by the great Ian McEwan, this dramatic romance crystallizes the damaging innocence of the times and the dire need for experience.

While 21st-century easy hookup time is not ideal, the danger of being clueless about the power of sex and its mandates is palpable in this star-crossed story. Florence, an upper-middle class musician with a fledgling quartet, is both the scourge of Edward’s hopes to be a successful husband and the hope for their love that tries to transcend sexuality. Mozart laces throughout to elevate Darwinian love making, reminding of the ethereal heights to which art can elevate love.

Yes, it’s a beautifully melancholic romance whose future is endangered by present repressive times, a legacy those of us know well who were taught about the opposite sex by tyrannical and ignorant clericals, who had never been married and were usually virgins. So much is set on the beach with flashbacks to help us understand the demons that it is easy to see the future through  the repression of the present.

Much of the movie moves through the awkward attempt at first sex, pristine by contemporary standards. Yet, that discomfort is necessary to understand the uncompromising fate of the couple and the tears that will inevitably come.

Regardless of where anyone is now, this powerful love story reminds of how deeply we are indebted to sex and how treating it casually or ignorantly inevitably leads to lives of desperation.

Although at times On Chesil beach echoes the delicacy of love in Call Me By Your Name and at others by the talk of Richard Linklater’s Before series, this romance evokes the innocence of first love and the ruthlessness of experience.

Beautifully photographed by Sean Bobbitt, Chesil still owes most of its greatness to Dominic Cooke’s direction, where the harshness of failed expectations is tempered by a love that transcends, but cannot denounce, sex.

“Break this heavy chain,
That does freeze my bones around!
Selfish, vain,
Eternal bane,
That free love with bondage bound.” Blake, Songs of Experience

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at