It’s the summer of 1962 and Saoirse Ronan is Florence Ponting, a straight-laced,
upper class musician with dreams of playing with an orchestra. University College of London history student Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) is working class, but despite their different stations in life, woos her and soon the pair is married.
We meet them on their honeymoon in a hotel on Chesil Beach, Dorset. Their obvious affection for one another aside, they are inexperienced and anxious. Edward is eager but Florence is torn between her distaste of personal intimacy and her fear of disappointing her new husband. “You’re always advancing and I am always backing away,” she says, “and we can never talk about it.”
Through flashbacks from their lives, both separately and together, we learn of Edward’s difficult home life with a mentally ill mother (Anne-Marie Duff) and what makes them both tick.
“On Chesil Beach” is essentially a chamber piece, built around the two lead performances. Director Dominic Cooke takes full advantage of them, luxuriating over their faces, letting their eyes, rather than the dialogue tell the story. Once again, Ronan is remarkable, authentic in every way. Howle contrasts Florence’s calm presence with a more volatile presence. From flashbacks to happier times and their their eventful honeymoon to a flashforward, we see a couple slowly crushed by the emotional weight of their circumstances.
Despite the emotional heaviness the film is light on its feet, only becoming bogged down in an overly sentimental—and tacked on feeling—coda.