In the new film On Chesil Beach, based on a novella by acclaimed writer Ian McEwan (who also wrote the screenplay), it’s 1962 and newlyweds Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) have just started out on their honeymoon in a hotel located at the title beach, a windswept, rocky, rather desolate place. It’s in many ways a perfect spot for what’s about to occur, as the couple sit down to dinner, make small talk, drink a little, listen to music…and both literally and figuratively dance around the elephant in the room, or we should we say, the bed.
It is, after all, their first night as a married couple and all roads lead to what’s supposed to happen on that mattress. Both Florence and Edward are understandably awkward to varying degrees, but as the evening progresses it becomes apparent that one of them is just not ready — and may never be ready — for the supposed bliss of getting between the conjugal sheets.
The disastrous events of On Chesil Beach play out between flashbacks and, eventually, flash-forwards, with the former highlighting the upbringing that formed both of these empathetic but markedly different people. Florence grew up in an upper class household, wanting to be a violinist and listening almost exclusively to classical music, while chafing under the thumb of her mean-spirited, nose-in-the-air mother (Emily Watson) and distant father (Samuel West).
Edward is a history grad student from a working class family whose mother (Anne-Marie Duff) has brain damage but whose household is still a loving one — even if his future mother-in-law sniffs at them a bit. Edward likes rock music, is more outgoing and occasionally too impulsive, while Florence is a budding political activist who nevertheless has a reserved air about her — and a secret which is glimpsed only fleetingly as their love affair comes to a, shall we say, premature ending in that room on Chesil Beach.
Theater director Dominic Cooke, making his debut behind the camera here, manages to take what many have deemed an unfilmable piece of writing (because of its internalized nature) and turn it into a largely compelling look at those icy British attitudes toward sex and class in the days before the sexual revolution and the vaunted “Sixties” really turned things upside down. The damage done to both Florence and Edward by their respective histories becomes palpable, thanks in no small measure to terrific performances from both actors.
Ronan adds another beautifully developed character to her already considerable catalog, and while Howle may not be quite as detailed an actor, he still brings depth and compassion to a character who could easily turn into an oversexed frat boy in the wrong hands. Cooke largely stays out of their way while managing to use the flashbacks to get us out of that hotel room once in a while. His handling of the film’s turning point is as dignified as possible, and the repercussions that follow are tragic enough to wipe away (no pun intended) any lingering doubts about how it’s staged.
The only thing that On Chesil Beach really fumbles is its final stretch: while the book’s closing pages are all in the thoughts and ruminations of one character, the movie makes it all too literal and utilizes some truly bad old age make-up to make it even more cringeworthy. To be fair, it’s certainly not easy to visualize any ending to this tale that works in a cinematic sense, but perhaps McEwan should have brought in another screenwriter to help him, unlike his poor protagonists, reach a satisfying climax.
On Chesil Beach is out in theaters Friday (May 18).