On Chesil Beach is a movie about a young asexual woman made by people who don’t know that asexuality is a thing, which can be everything from confusing to upsetting for an audience.
As the credits rolled, I heard someone ask, “I wish someone would tell me what was going on in that girl’s head,” so thoroughly had the film failed to do it.
A character study of a couple refracted through their wedding night – or, more precisely, afternoon – it’s worth seeing for Saiorse Ronan’s performance as Florence, but it’s a frustrating film experience at best and a hostile one at worst.
In short, because of her asexuality and both of their inexperience, their encounter is disappointing for him, traumatizing for her, and funny to the audience I saw it with (though not to me). In their defense, that’s how it’s constructed. The film, though including flashbacks for both characters, firmly prioritizes the perspective of the new husband, Ed (Billy Howle), as he struggles with her zip, struggles with his shoes, struggles with her constant delaying tactics of asking him questions. But it isn’t funny.
It’s clear in Ronan’s performance, in her voice, in her face, in the tension in her hands, in how she tugs at her dress, that she wants him to be comfortable and that she also does not want to do this. She tells him she’s afraid and it costs her a lot to do it, but he dismisses it by telling her he’s scared too. Which is certainly true, but his fear is different and he assumes it’s the same.
The film also assumes it’s the same, even when Florence tells us it’s different. (She tells us, but also we’re shown when she is caught reading a sex manual by her younger sister, who clearly has a very different sort of interest in the topic.) After their encounter she flees to the far end of the beach, he follows her, and when they speak she is very clear about understanding how she’s different, what she does and does not want. In response, he verbally abuses and physically threatens her, and as she leaves him on the beach, she virtually leaves the film, and no counter-narrative for his slurs ever is given.
Back in the hotel room, Ed packs and leaves to the tune of “The Thrill Is Gone”, an aural joke, diminishing Florence, what she’s confessed to him, and what she was willing to give to make their relationship work.
Then, in the clearest alignment of the film with his perspective, it makes two time leaps to improbable coincidence: a dozen or so years later he encounters her child in his record shop, 30 years on from that he finally – FINALLY – attends one of her concerts.
So in the flashforwards, though stuck in Ed’s shitty perspective, we learn that Florence has remarried and formed a family. And as I sat there, all I could think is WHY THE FUCK DIDN’T WE SEE THAT. I’m vastly more interested in her story, in seeing a heteroromantic ace person navigate marriage and family during the sexual revolution. I haven’t seen that before, at least, not on film.
It’s my understanding that these scenes are not part of the McEwan novel, which is probably why, when she leaves him on the beach we feel as though the film should end there. The whole story is deeply flawed from the start, but those final scenes are wild flailing of filmmakers wholly unaware of the actual story they’re telling.