I trust Saoirse Ronan to choose movies that are compelling and I went into On Chesil Beach with some hope she would bring a layer to Florence I didn’t expect. Unfortunately, the movie missed a major point that could have revolutionized how we view women’s sexuality in film.
Perhaps it was the source material, which was written by a man, that sets this story back so much. I’ve never read the book, so I cant speak to that.
On Cheisel Beach is mostly about a couple and their awkward wedding night, set in the 60’s. The plot is interrupted with flashbacks to when they were courting and everything seemed great. Of course, there are negative moments for both Florence and Edward, though more time is given to Edward to explore those issues.
There are two moments in the film that briefly suggest Florence was abused as a child but the film avoids any real conversation about it. Maybe that’s the larger point, that Edward never takes the time to ask Florence about why she has an aversion to sex, and so the audience never learns either.
It’s clear by the end of the film, which departs from the wedding night and serves as an epilogue after the annulment, Edward is the hero of this story. He is not victorious, but we follow him in his old age instead of Florence.
As it turns out, Florence has moved on, has a family, and the successful career she dreamed of. So sure, maybe the story is that Edward wasn’t man enough to really get to know his new wife, despite how much she was willing to sacrifice just to be with him. It’s a story about a selfish man.
However, that’s not good enough for me. On Chesil Beach could have been a triumphant story about an asexual woman who lives a full life in spite of the man who shamed her for not performing what he expected of her.
I had so much hope when Florence pleas with Edward saying “I don’t seem to need sex like everyone else does.” This could have been a gateway for Florence to be purely ace but still a happy and successful woman.
Instead the epilogue destroys that narrative and puts in its place “She just hadn’t met the right man.” It’s a shame that a period movie has to have the same old values as the time it was set in.
I’m not even interested in the epilogue from Florence’s point of view because it is still ultimately from the perspective of the man who wrote it. “I wasn’t the man who could fix her,” aren’t we tired of this narrative by now?
The shame should not be on the women like Florence who may have or who are currently having the same dilemma as her. We need to reconsider the lens we view marriage and how we portray it in the past. We cannot allow conservative feelings from the time periods we represent on film to cloud the narrative. It’s easy to make excuses for older movies, but there is no room for modern movies about the past.
I’d like to see more female writers tackling these issues, and if you know of any, please let me know!
[Photo courtesy of IMDB]