The film is ostensibly a prestige romantic drama about a young couple (Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle) trying to make it work during a transitory time in England’s history, but there are moments when it’s strangely laughable, nearly a slapstick routine. Rating: 2.5 stars out of 4.
Theater director Dominic Cooke tackles Ian McEwan’s novel “On Chesil Beach,” adapted for the screen by McEwan himself. McEwan’s books have made for memorable film adaptations, most notably, “Atonement,” which gave Saoirse Ronan a breakout role 11 years ago. She’s now a two-time Oscar nominee and in-demand ingenue, and she returns to McEwan’s world as the star of “On Chesil Beach,” across from Billy Howle, playing a pair of young lovers in 1962 England.
The plot of “On Chesil Beach” takes place over several disastrous hours in the honeymoon suite of a seaside hotel, just after the wedding of Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Howle). Things could not be more awkward for this young, virginal couple, alone, in private, for seemingly the first time ever in their relationship. As Edward nervously attempts to consummate the relationship, they’re both lost in the memories of their courtship, especially as Florence implores him to “tell me something,” every time things get hotter and heavier.
The flashbacks are a device for exploring their relationship, during this time of cultural turmoil and change, and sex is at the forefront of that shift. The turmoil that goes on behind the closed doors of Florence and Edward’s hotel room represents that shift and drives the story.
Edward is a working-class boy with big dreams and academic goals. His mother, brain-damaged in a train accident, is incapable of caretaking, and his younger twin sisters and father are often preoccupied. Florence, on the other hand, is the daughter of privilege, hoping to propel her string quartet to fame and fortune, probably with some help from daddy’s money. The two collide on the Oxford campus and it’s love at first sight.
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The contrast in energy between the flashbacks and their interactions in the room is stark. During their courtship, Florence is bold, confident and happy. On her wedding night, she is tense, stressed and fearful. Edward, a physically impulsive if unskilled Labrador of a man, fumbles the seduction in the face of Florence’s extreme reticence, leading to an awkward, traumatic outcome. The film suggests some indication of why Florence might be so repelled by sex, but it never, well, goes all the way.
“On Chesil Beach” is ostensibly a prestige romantic drama about a young couple trying to make it work during a transitory time in England’s history, but there are moments when it’s strangely laughable, nearly a slapstick routine. The tone is all over the place and both asks the viewer to laugh at it and take it seriously at the same time.
Of course there are moments at which to titter, but it’s hard to get the ship of the story turned back around toward earnest seriousness when it keeps vacillating in tone. A coda involving old-age makeup on the two young leads takes it to a place of seriously sappy sentimentality.
But despite some of the storytelling mishaps, at the heart of the matter are two young people desperately in love, desperately trying to make it work, hindered by their crushed expectations and bruised egos. Ronan and Howle are tremendous in their performances, especially in the way they physically inhabit the characters, transforming from free and unabashed to tense and closed. The bedroom drama, which is almost theatrical in its setting, is riveting thanks to these two actors, and makes the film worthy of regard.
★★½ “On Chesil Beach,” with Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson. Directed by Dominic Cooke, from a screenplay by Ian McEwan, based on a novel by McEwan. 110 minutes. Rated R for some sexual content and nudity. Multiple theaters.