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On Chesil Beach

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riverflows17.6 K29 days agoPeakD7 min read

I've always enjoyed the central idea of most of Ian McEwans books - how a simple event can be the turning point in people's lives, often with tragic consequences. It's a formula he follows in his short novel 'On Chesil Beach', and is renacted in the film adaptation of the same name.

The beach itself is a lovely metaphor for the distances between people. On a narrow isthumas of pebbly beach with a body of water on each side, a young couple play out the tragedy of their short lived affair, and a marriage that lasts a brief six hours before drawing to an end. I used to live about half an hour from Chesil Beach, and I remember, like most stoney beaches in England, the clink of stones in the gathering and loosening of the tide. This is faithfully depicted in the film, where the two innocents play out their anxieties on the loneliness of the long stretch of beach, alienated and isolated from their own emotions and each other.


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Chesil Beach

I'm late watching the film, but I wanted to write about it as I did really enjoy it. There was a lot of criticism directed at it from those who thought it was painfully boring, unlikely, and who hated the terrible age prosthetics in the last part of the film, as did I. Prosthetics aside, I thought the film was well done, and I appreciated the director's additions that emphasised the theme of regret and longing, the naivete of the young couple, their hopes and dreams conflicting with the reality of a situation they are unable to truly see until trapped in a room on their wedding night. The film stands alongside the book for exploring the intricacies of a relationship, and whilst it might shift the narrative perspective away from the central protagonist (the male narrator who recalls this part of his life) and onto both characters, I liked the slow burn and believable fumbling between two naive innocents who were not emotionally equipped to deal with their anxieties and insecurities.

What puzzled me is reviews about the female character, Florence, as asexual. Perhaps it is about asexuals recognising part of themselves in Florence's character, who is accused of being 'frigid' and still clearly wants love but without the messy anxiety of sex. However, I couldn't see this at all myself. Florence is clearly haunted by her childhood - an abuse almost easily missed in the book:

"Here came the past, anyway, the indistinct past. It was the smell of the sea that summoned it. She was twelve years old, lying still like this, waiting, shivering in the narrow bunk with polished mahogany sides. Her mind was a blank, she felt she was in disgrace. […] It was late in the evening, and her father was moving about the dim cramped cabin, undressing, like Edward now. She remembered the rustle of clothes, the clink of a belt unfastening or of keys or loose change. Her only task was to keep her eyes closed and to think of a tune she liked. Or any tune. She was usually sick many times on the crossing, and of no use to her father as a sailor, and that surely was the source of her shame."

It is a little more obvious in the film - a sullen Florence coiling rope on a sailboat, as if to wind up control of the situation, and her in bed, her father blurred behind her. She is not frigid, but traumatized by whatever her father did. What she needed in her relationship was not a boy who hadn't had a wank in a week in anticipation of his marriage night, a boy who is always 'advancing' toward her despite her unwillingness, but a man who could patiently create space for her to process her trauma.

In the film, Florence might be clenching her fists as she tries her best to consummate the marriage, yet there is also the breathlessness of anticipation - to me this isn't a girl who is asexual, but struggling with the sexual because it is a first encounter laced with childhood memory of abuse. It does not mean that she will never feel desire, despite what she pitches to her husband: a loving relationship without sex. She just needs time, like anyone might.

This is something the male lead recognises, reflecting as an adult:

“When he thought of her, it rather amazed him that he had let that girl with her violin go,” writes McEwan, “All she had needed was the certainty of his love, and his reassurance that there was no hurry when a lifetime lay ahead of them. Love and patience – if only he had had them both at once – would surely have seen them both through.”

In the film, this idea is reinforced as she goes onto to have three children, suggesting that she has sex at least thrice and the fact she is still with her husband suggests she did have a long at at least amicable marriage. It is quite possible that he provided what Florence needed to move through whatever had happened to her, and was able to even enjoy the sex she found so reprehensively aborrent on her wedding night, running from the room screaming.

In the novel, he was married briefly but never found the same love he had with Florence. In the film he seems to fare considerably better - he at least clearly has love interests in the free lovin' 70's, or at least it's implied. Here's a man who got his rocks off in his youth - but, in the style of typical men who never grow up, he clearly finds sexual relationships more important than investing in what love truly demands of us: patience, communication, sacrifice. It's only as an old man that he can wonder how he let the violin girl go.

I couldn't help feeling for the older Florence in the film too. Was she crying because she loved him, and spent her whole life loving him, or was she crying because she was forced to remember the humiliation of this moment she must relive because he finally implanted himself in the audience right in front of her like a selfish git? Was she regretting her own immaturity at the time, or her naivete at marrying someone when she was clearly not ready? It's with Florence my true sympathies lie - as a woman, I am only frustrated and angry somewhat at the men who only think with their penises and cannot act - or choose not to act - from their heart as the wild primal beating of desire overcomes their humanity.

Their tragedy, both in its literary and cinematic forms, provokes deep questions about what is required in true, loving relationships, patience, the impacts of trauma and the lasting impact of our choices. It is not a tale of asexuality.

With Love,

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With Love,

 
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