‘On Chesil Beach’ handsomely remembers a Britain before sexual liberation

It’s the early Sixties, and a honeymooning couple nervously get ready to consummate their marriage – but things don’t go quite to plan

On Chesil Beach opens with a young couple on a romantic stroll along the gravel bank of the Dorset coastline of the film’s title. It is 1962, and the man and woman, both in their early twenties, are talking about rock ‘n’ roll music. Their conversation concerning the chord progression of a rock standard is pretty square – these kids have no idea about the social and sexual revolution that rock music is about to usher in. “Sexual intercourse began,” the poet Philip Larkin wrote, “in 1963/ (which was rather late for me)/ Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles’ first LP”.

That’s a whole year away for Florence and Edward, the couple earnestly discussing musicology on a windy seafront, but it could be a lifetime. An intelligent, handsomely crafted and sometimes very moving adaptation of Ian McEwan’s 2007 novella, the film is on one level a terrifying time-capsule of the era of restraint and repression that the Sixties did so much to overturn.

Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) were married earlier that day, and are now beginning their honeymoon in a posh coastal hotel. Two waiters bring room service to their honeymoon suite. Florence and Edward will later confess that they are both sexually inexperienced, and will approach the bed at the far end of the room with mounting trepidation.

But from the outset there is an atmosphere of nervous anticipation, of awkward formality. The waiters pick up on the young honeymooners’ anxiety – and greet Florence and Edward’s fumbled attempts at intimacy with the smug innuendo of an English seaside postcard.

Unfurling in the shabby grandeur of this hotel suite, then on the windy beach outside, On Chesil Beach charts Florence and Edward’s disastrous first day of marriage. The film is a nuanced, excruciatingly unblinking depiction of a young couple overcome by a fear of physical closeness (and Ronan and Howle are both terrific in these difficult roles).

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Flashing between their wedding night and the heady days of their courtship with nimble sophistication (editor Nick Fenton does fine work here with debut movie director Dominic Cooke), the film depicts a time when sex education for young folk like Florence and Edward was a secret enterprise. Florence reads a ‘how to’ manual with disgust in the privacy of her family bathroom: in the climate of whispery shame that defines post-war England of the time, sex seems as exotic a commodity as the strange green vegetables with a foreign name whose appearance on the dinner table confuses Florence’s father (they are mange tout, by the way).

Florence and Edward’s uneasy approach to the prospect of consummating their marriage is exacerbated by their different personal circumstances, which the film worries away at with absorbing sensitivity.

Sex seems as exotic a commodity as the strange green vegetables with a foreign name whose appearance on the dinner table confuses Florence’s father

There are subtle differences of social standing between the couple, and Florence’s choice of Edward earns the snooty disapproval of her mother; Edward’s own mother (poignantly played by Anne-Marie Duff) is mentally ill, which has trained her son to adopt a certain detachment to troubling situations. Even more unsettling is Florence’s childhood history with her father, a darkly exploitative relationship which the film refers to fleetingly – but which reverberates through it like the aftershock of a trauma.

On Chesil Beach is an ambitious film, and it largely works thanks to the exquisitely pitched performances of Ronan and Howle. An epilogue involving prosthetics and the kind of gushing sentimentality that the film mostly avoids is one the few mis-steps, but that disappointing final note aside, this is an assured, affecting drama.

On Chesil Beach is in cinemas from May 18