In “On Chesil Beach,” British writer Ian McEwan (“Atonement”) adapts his critically acclaimed 2007 novel of a crumbling marriage into a film that stars two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”) and Billy Howle (“Dunkirk”) as the ill-fated lovers.
When the movie opens, it’s 1962 London, and a pair of attractive young newlyweds — Florence (Ronan, luminous, per usual) and Edward (Howle) — stroll along Chesil Beach. They laugh, hold hands and kiss, as the wind tousles their hair just so. It’s picture-perfect. But once the couple retires to their seaside hotel, things begin to fall apart, as the stress and awkwardness of sealing the deal creeps into the elegant space. Sex is the elephant in the room, so to speak. The issues, however, are real, as the script speaks to the power of sex — wanting it, fearing it and the capacity it has to ruin relationships.
Edward’s in a hurry to consummate the marriage. Florence is not. They’re in an uncomfortable game of push-pull. Every time they move an inch closer to going all the way, she hits the brakes. “Tell me something,” she says. Flashbacks to their darling courtship ensue. She’s a violinist, a girl of privilege. Her mum (Emily Watson) calls him “country bumpkin.” They meet cute at Oxford. They picnic and smooch in meadows. She endears herself to his family, helping to care for his brain-damaged mother (Anne-Marie Duff). “Marry that girl,” Dad (Adrian Scarborough) advises. So he does.
Six hours after they exchange I-dos, Edward is holed up in a hotel room with a wife who finds sex “revolting.” First-time feature director Dominic Cooke is on top of his game shooting the tense, cringe-inducing marital-suite standoff. A veteran theater director, Cooke excels in this long-running sequence, confining it to a single space interrupted only by flashbacks. In all the right ways, it feels stagey, which is right in Cooke’s comfort zone. His camera knows just where to linger (as Florence rolls down her stockings), and just how far to pull out so all four walls are in view. It is a stifling setting with no escape. Like Florence lying stiff and motionless on the red satin-sheet covered bed, you too are transfixed. Will they or won’t they? The movie works its way up to answering that question.
The reliance on flashbacks throws the film off tonally. It shifts back and forth between light and heavy, and it’s not always a smooth transition. However, the movie is anchored by stellar performances; especially Ronan and Howle who are able to pull off loathe and love. Ronan also shares a charmingly funny scene with Bebe Cave, playing Florence’s younger sister, Ruth. The girls get their hands on a 1960s sex manual, and let’s just say, they find the information shocking. Samuel West delivers a strong turn as the girls’ overbearing father.
For her part, with just a glance or expression, the always-radiant Ronan lets us see straight into Florence’s heart. McEwan’s screenplay fails to go far enough in exploring the difficulties and anxieties that Florence feels. The script only hints at why she is the way she is. Instead of building the movie around that conflict, McEwan and Cooke instead slip into something too contrived and easier to tidy up in the final scenes. The story jumps ahead about 10 years and then leaps completely into the future with Howle and Ronan decked out in old-age makeup. What transpires is nothing short of predictable, but, nevertheless, packs a poignant punch.
— Dana Barbuto may be reached at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“On Chesil Beach”
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Samuel West, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough.
(PG-13 for for some sexual content and nudity).