Ian McEwan’s film adaptation of his novella On Chesil Beach poses interesting questions about asexuality and what is expected in a marital relationship, but doesn’t quite answer them to a satisfying degree. The film charmingly depicts the stark contrast between Florence and Edward before their wedding day, and in the claustrophobic hotel room in which they begin their short-lived honeymoon. Outside of this room, unrestricted by the pressures of what is expected from newlyweds on their wedding night, they make quite a lovely couple and seem to have genuine love for one another.
Florence’s confidence when leading her quartet and the way in which her speech is so deliberate and words are chosen so carefully throughout, is juxtaposed by her awkwardness and inefficiency at communicating her sexual needs, or lack thereof, in the bedroom, which is a testament to the strength of Saoirse Ronan’s performance.
In-between the flashbacks to the couple’s life before the wedding, the building discomfort between the pair in the stuffy hotel room is tangible and makes for difficult viewing at times, echoed at the beginning of the film by the cringey clumsiness of the servers who insist on providing them with “silver service”; clanging and scraping the silverware as they do so.
Florence is a rare example of an asexual character, a subject rarely explored on-screen. Although, due to the 1962 setting she lacks the language to express or even understand her sexuality which makes for a heartbreakingly complex premise. Edward lacks the courage to simply convey his desires in a straightforward manner; compared with the opening lines of Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 in D Major played by Florence’s quartet, which she describes as “tender; like a question”, and which poses its question with far more eloquence and purpose than Edward does at any stage in the bedroom. For Florence, however, it is obvious that she does not want to engage in any sexual relations with him as she attempts to stall for time by asking Edward an abundance of questions and insisting on removing her own clothing; slowly and hesitantly.
As a viewer in the age of Weinstein-gate it begs into question whether there was actually any consent involved and in turn makes me question the concept of sex in relation to marriage and relationships in general. Why is there an assumption of sex on the wedding night? What is a romantic relationship without sex? Given the tragedy surrounding Edward’s discovery of Florence’s lack of sexual urges and considering the fact that the marriage was annulled on the grounds of “non-consummation” there is clearly huge cultural weight attached to it.
Although McEwan opens up these questions about what it means to be asexual and whether a person can live happily without engaging in sexual relationships, he does not quite answer them as Florence seems to submit to societal norms by eventually marrying someone else and having children with him. Whether Florence changed her mind about this and it became something she actually wanted, or she was simply conceding to the status quo is never explored and I was left dissatisfied without the answer.
There are hints at some form of abusive behaviour from Florence’s father, with one particular cut away that could almost be missed, seeming to suggest abuse of a sexual nature, but again this is never fully developed as a side plot and though this may have been intentional, the concept was nowhere near fleshed out enough to cause anything but dissatisfaction. The ending felt unnecessarily sentimental; Edward’s blubbering almost unrealistic after so many years, and the old age special effects too distracting to add anything to the scene. The film could have benefited from ending after the first epilogue, though didn’t give a satisfying answer to the questions it posed either way.