“On Chesil Beach” would be an uncomfortable sit even if director Dominic Cooke’s film version of the Ian McEwan novella had figured out an effective tone and style for these clammy little scenes from a repressed, thwarted marriage. What worked on the page, more or less, struggles on screen, however, even though (and maybe because) McEwan adapted his own 2007 story.
It’s set mostly in 1962, just as Britain’s postwar era was about to give way to the Beatles and the new freedoms. We’re along and near the Dorset beach where newlyweds Florence, played by the ubiquitous Saoirse Ronan, and Edward, played by Billy Howle, are beginning their lives together. The actors aren’t really the issue here, though it’s a clear sign of the difficulties involved that “On Chesil Beach” contains Ronan’s first notably effortful performance on screen.
To be fair, McEwan’s couple is under tremendous pressure. The book’s opening sentence establishes the stakes: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when a conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.” Florence, a classical violinist in training, comes from money; she meets middle-class historian Edward at Oxford at an anti-nuke leafleting demonstration, and their hearts take it from there.
But where is “there”? Like the novella, the film version begins and continually returns to the fraught particulars of the couple’s post-nuptial hotel room dinner; Edward’s fumbling attempts to get on with it; Florence’s increasing panic; and a grimly awkward non-consummation of the union. The conversations between the two, before, during and after this, trigger a series of flashbacks to their earlier days.
“On Chesil Beach” is built upon the fact of how quickly and definitively two people who love each other can run aground in a failure to communicate, to open up, to work through their demons. (McEwan is quite clear about the source of Florence’s sexual anxiety.) The movie never settles on a mood or a rhythm for the flashback/present tense seesawing. This is director Cooke’s first feature; his stage training serves him well in the individual exchanges, and there’s fine work from Emily Watson (as Florence’s stern mother), Samuel West (as her bullying father), Anne-Marie Duff (Edward’s mother, who suffers a freak accident and loses touch with reality) and Adrian Scarborough (Edward’s kind, diffident father, just muddling through). Yet to take one example: The way Cooke films the freak-accident flashback, it’s played periliously and unintentionally close to a sight gag.
Earlier, the intentional comedy of intense awkwardness McEwan deploys in the hotel dinner scenes feels overplayed, uncertain. And while Ronan and Howle give it their all, there’s an unvarying dramatic pitch to Ronan’s key later scenes. Too little of the confrontation and evasion feels and sounds like actual humans on a real beach in a real, and really, really repressive, time in recent history. And at one point, Florence is required to utter the words “and I said, in a tiny, shaking voice.” That’s the sound of a screenwriter who needed to have a little talk with the author.
The ending is very different from the novella, and I was surprised at its shameless, ruthless emotional effectiveness. After so much discreet internal suffering, a direct attack on the tear ducts took me by surprise. The rest of the film never sticks with a given wavelength for very long, before nervously trying something else.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
"On Chesil Beach" -- 2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for some sexual content and nudity)
Running time: 1:50