On Chesil Beach

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 05/29/18 13:49:53

"A turbulent, troubled honeymoon."
3 stars (Average)

There's no missing the point with "On Chesil Beach"; even before a couple flash-forwards that hammer things home in the most obvious way possible, it's clear what the filmmakers are talking about and where events are headed. It's not really a problem, since it's being played out by a couple of fine young actors and seldom fails to be anything less than beautifully mounted.

It opens in 1962, with young couple Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Billy Howle) honeymooning in the title's seaside town. Both just out of university, they're a bit of an unusual pairing - she's a musician from an upper-class family, he's from far more modest circumstances and studied history. They are nevertheless genuinely in love, but consummating the marriage weighs heavily on their minds - though they've kissed and been affectionate, both are virgins, and Florence in particular is tremendously nervous about her first time.

There's some clever foreshadowing of this right in the first scene, as they walk along a rocky beach talking about Chuck Berry, and Florence in particular is only able to dissect it on a technical level. Berry's sweaty, instinctual rock & roll has an energy that Florence has no experience with despite her being less repressed than she initially appears. Director Dominic Cooke and writer Ian McEwan (adapting his own novel) don't underline this particular point home as hard as they do later ones, and instead use it to build an interesting structure: A somewhat formal present-tense that draws on Cooke's time directing theater to build scenes around just Florence and Edward, putting them in a particular space and having them talk, which allows for flashbacks that seem a bit more open and filmic, from the one where they meet because Edward has nobody in his family he can show his pride in his school marks to later moments that work because of compression, nested timelines, and movement.

That's a fine platform for stars Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle, who build excellent "opposites attract" chemistry by playing into their characters' different backgrounds. Howle projects great intelligence as Edward Mayhew and captures the strain of being not what people expect of one's social class well, playing into every moment where Edward is desperate to impress, frustrated at people looking down on him, or embarrassed by his brain-damaged mother with just the right amount that they don't overwhelm the character's innate good qualities but also mean that there is exactly the right amount of surprise when the filmmakers elect to show that he has a temper. On the other side, Ronan is taking a character who would be given a tag like "adorkable" or the like a few decades later and brings out how simultaneously headstrong and terrified Florence Ponting is. It's a somewhat affected performance, with Ronan putting a lot of human enthusiasm into a character who often seems a bit out of step with the world around her.

And yet, even before it goes into hammering mode, it's a bit too art-house-y, never missing a moment for the writers to show off their intellectual bona fides or later kind of slum it in pop culture, always making sure their perspective and attitudes are plain. There's something almost crass about how Anne-Marie Duff is deployed as Edward's mother Marjorie, for instance, with the filmmakers too tasteful to use her as comic relief but also playing her tragic circumstances as an embarrassing nuisance. As a director, Cooke sometimes seems to be showing off, especially at a pivotal moment where the cuts become much more noticeable and the on-screen separation of the two characters becomes extreme, and it's just enough for the analytic part of the brain to examine the craft rather than feel the emotion of the moment. That moment also heralds a shift from a fairly even split between Florence's and Edward's points of views to seeing events strictly through the eyes of the less interesting party.

It's not completely cold by a long shot; indeed, the film impresses and leaves a fair amount to talk through when it's done. It could have done that a little better, perhaps, if the filmmakers weren't quite so keen on making sure we realized how profound and artful their story and their telling of it is.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.