The scene couldn’t be more idyllic: an isolated beach, a pair of young lovers, nothing but them and the sea. But in Dominic Cooke’s debut feature film, “On Chesil Beach,” nothing is as it seems, and even the most striking of images can hide the darkest of secrets. Based on Ian McEwan’s novella of the same name, the film follows a pair of honeymooners (Saoirse Ronan and a revelatory Billy Howle) on their first night together, interspersed with a series of flashbacks that clarify the shaky state of their newly-sealed relationship. Set in the early 1960s, both Florence (Ronan) and Edward (Howle) have mostly sidestepped the rising cultural tide, instead finding themselves enmeshed (and often trapped) in traditional expectations that keep them from being honest with each other. Ultimately, it is what dooms them in a flat-footed take on McEwan’s compelling story.
For the film’s first act, Cooke admirably toes the line between comedic farce and aching period piece, nimbly switching between the newlyweds’ initially amusing inability to just be alone together (made nearly impossible by the interjection of a pair of somewhat bumbling waiters who make every minute of their wedding night dinner feel absolutely excruciating, the sort of thing you imagine the couple laughing about later) and flashbacks that help us better understand both their individual backgrounds and their unexpected love story. Yet “On Chesil Beach” offers up so many tricky tonal changes, enough that Cooke eventually gives them over to a single note: limp.
While the differences between Florence and Edward are noticeable — she’s a talented young musician with big ambitions and a wealthy family to back her, he’s a scrappy country boy with a tainted family that can only offer their love — the early blushes of their romance are charming and believable. Yet its their dueling stances on the act of physical affection that ultimately splits them, and “On Chesil Beach” seems destined to go down as the most uncomfortable movie about not making love of the last decade. That it’s their honeymoon, the start of their lives together, is the big joke at the center of a deeply unfunny plot.
After a strong start, the film’s middle section sags into the most benign of observations about Edward and Florence and the elements that have pulled them together. For a film that is so consumed with the burning complications of first, early love, “On Chesil Beach” more resembles a wilted relationship, one that offers up no excitement about the future and little respect for the past. It’s simply stale. McEwan himself has screenwriting credit on this one, adapting his own novella for the screen in a fashion that’s so faithful to its original material that it consistently fails to drum up any new insights whatsoever.
McEwan’s understandable dedication to the source material also leads to some pushy, unnecessary inclusions, from a scene that dramatizes Edward’s apparent “coarseness” in a way that’s in direct opposition to everything else we’ve learned about the character, to a heartbreaking insight into Florence’s family life that should either be much bigger or totally excised from the film. In its current state, it’s somehow both too little and too much, and only eagle-eyed audiences will likely pick up on the implications, while plenty of viewers will wonder just what Cooke and McEwan were trying to telegraph through three hazy, undercooked scenes.
It’s Howle that is the film’s big find, and the rising star break outs as the wounded and compelling Edward, a rough-hewed “bumpkin” who wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s Edward’s pain that drives the film, especially as it lurches to its shoehorned final sequences, and Howle embodies the complex character with ease. When Edward hurts, everything hurts. That’s especially fortunate, as the always-reliable Ronan, so often the best thing in every project she touches, is underutilized here, and her performance fades in the face of Howle’s remarkable work. Still, the pair are compelling together, and their flinty chemistry will again be on display in Michael Mayer’s upcoming take on “The Seagull,” in which the actors are again matched up, this time bolstered by the themes of the Anton Chekov classic.
The film’s final act is both its best and worst, anchored by the long-gestating blow-up between the young newlyweds — naturally, it’s set on the eponymous Chesil Beach — that sees both Howle and Ronan delivering show-stopping performances and Sean Bobbitt’s lush cinematography combining beauty and function in with total precision. Yet McEwan has also used the film’s final scenes to expand out the novella’s relatively understated, though still well-earned conclusion to include not just one, but two flash-forwards that hinge on weak coincidences and still worse old-age makeup.
Away from the beach and away from the raw honesty it forces out of its stars, “On Chesil Beach” heads towards shallow, cold waters. Like its central characters, it never recovers.
“On Chesil Beach” premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.