“I’ll keep in a cave, your comfort and all”
The scenes of a storyteller romance turns into the bleak movements of unconsummated love and marriage: here, in On Chesil Beach, lies the ruins of an old system where the casualty of romance never took for granted the intimacy of marital incidentals. La La Land in the time of Old Hollywood meets Blue Valentine for teenagers, Dominic Cooke’s first film tells the story of a newlywed couple from two worlds, unable to meet in the middle, finding themselves the collateral victims of circumstance and seeming depravity of parents. Connected and yet unresolved, flirting for a brief moment with “till death do us part” and then discovering very quickly the cavity of language.
The writer, Ian McEwan, who adapted his own novel, explains well on NPR about the cultural divide regarding sex, a central theme in the film:
We live in a time when people in their mid-teens are faced with problems of a very different sort – not repression, but just peer pressure, social media, boys watching, you know, erotic, athletic pornographic stuff on the Internet, girls being told how to look, how to feel, how to – you know, what shape they should be.
I think it warps expectations because we still don’t have, for all this openness about sex, much discussion about emotional truthfulness.
A.O. Scott offers a fine explanation through the lens of a Philip Larkin’s poem about the strange, otherworldly community before the sexual revolution, when problems of intimacy were based less on some notion of inexperience, but on “the absence of a shared vocabulary adequate to their feelings and desires.” Larkin invokes to me a sadness of the normalcy that sex has become today and the routine carnal mechanism that people undergo daily. I’m beginning to sense that despite the overt celebration of sexual liberation, women today are beginning to come around to the fact that they were sold a bill of goods.
Then all at once the quarrel sank:
Everyone felt the same,
And every life became
A brilliant breaking of the bank,
A quite unlosable game.
Much about the film is absurd; half way through the film I began conceding that whatever semblance of the quality in Atonement McEwan had would not be found in On Chesil Beach. I was wrong in some sense. The film managed to find itself through the confluence of three moving parts in the second half:
- The reason for the damage was deeply believable and tragic—the scene on the beach had sparks of brilliance from two young performers who Cooke rightly trusted to deliver on the pivotal moment.
- The obstinacy and irreconcilability from Billy Howle’s character—whose unwillingness to join the celebratory ranks of open marriage peddlers is profound given the idea of “true love” and finding that equal part to measure compatibility in another.
- The subsequent dwelling on the past—having found once a perfect spark, the profound difficulty of finding another forever stains the dynamics of future relationships (see 45 Years on this).
In the end, I offer five similar 21st century romance dramas (not already mentioned) that introduce equal measures of meaningful reflection as homework: About Time (2013), Beginners (2010), An Education (2009), Two Lovers (2008), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004).