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Innocent newlyweds Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle have a wedding night out of hell, while their love wages an uphill battle against their upbringing and social expectations, in On Chesil Beach. This film of delicate emotional nuance recounts an enchanting but sad love story set in England in the early 1960s, just before the sexual revolution re-dealt the cards. Adapted from Ian McEwan’s 2007 novel by the author himself, it holds viewers in its genteel grip from start to almost finish. Only the final act makes a misstep, getting sidetracked into a disappointingly déjà vu ending that can’t match the depth that preceded it.
Still, the finely wrought drama has unusual energy and feeling for the period, which coupled with standout performances by the two leads could connect the BBC/Number 9 production with the kind of audiences who love Terence Davies and British period drama. Its well-heeled good taste and literary feel don’t make for the most exciting film on the block, though.
In his directorial debut as a filmmaker, British theater director Dominic Cooke demonstrates not only how sensitively he can direct actors, but also a feel for the medium as a language based on framing, pacing, editing and music. He uses a steady stream of flashbacks to describe Edward (Howle) and Florence’s (Ronan) first encounter, courtship and heart-breaking misfire due to incomprehension and impatience. One identifies in turns with both of these inexperienced, erring characters, who bring the baggage of their families as well as oppressive social convention to the nuptial bedroom, happily with a little bit of humor thrown in.
The timing is crucial to the story, most of which takes place in 1962. The opening shots pan over a timeless English seascape where gently rolling hills meet the vast stone beaches of Dorset. Much in contrast to this peaceful scene, a rambunctious jazz song projects the mood into the Swinging Sixties, which are right around the corner. It suggests the collision of values that the young couple, who are meant for each other as only film couples can be, are about to experience.
Florence and Edward are in love, and they are virgins in all senses of the word: timid, awkward, sexually inexperienced and above all, unschooled in overcoming obstacles in their relationship. The tension of consummating their marriage, which took place earlier that day, grows during an embarrassing tete-a-tete dinner in their hotel suite. While downstairs the hotel is full of guests packed into stuffy rooms, they are achingly alone with each other and the momentous thing that is supposed to happen.
As pressure mounts in the hotel room, Cooke smoothly tells their backstories in a series of flashbacks, each stimulated by something the couple says or feels. It’s an obvious way to transfer the interiority of McEwan’s novel into images, and it works.
Though both of them have recently graduated from college with first-class degrees and are eager to begin their lives, there are major differences to account for. Edward comes from an unpretentious country background and a family marked by a terrible accident, shown in a frightening scene, when his brilliant mother (strikingly played by Anne-Marie Duff) was struck by a moving train door and left with brain damage. Edward takes Florence to meet her and things take such a happy turn that his father whispers to him, “Marry that girl.”
Florence comes from a wealthy family full of pretentions. Her father owns a factory and her mother, played with cutting hauteur by Emily Watson, looks down her nose at Edward, whose father is master at an elementary school. Tucked into all this background information is just a whiff of something sexual that might have occurred between Florence and her father.
It is revealed in an instant at the crucial moment when she is in bed with Edward. He is clumsy and has not been able to get her blue dress unzipped; she is still wearing it on the bed, while he has stripped down to an unbuttoned shirt. Even though Florence has prepared herself by reading a sex manual, she is terrified when the moment comes. It is then she thinks of her father, played as an arrogant son of privilege by Samuel West. His childishness bursts out in a tennis game with Edward, who he has decided to groom for a management job at this factory, even though the boy studied history in college and has a wholly unsuitable temperament.
Florence, a talented violinist, is enamored of music and has formed a quintet to play chamber music. Her fantasy is one day to play on stage of Wigmore Hall. When Edward promises to come and hear her from a center seat in the third row, it is a red flag signaling that he is going to have to do this before the film is over.
It is in the brief last act, set in the hippie culture of 1975 and then the present day, when everyone is gray-haired and wearing wrinkle makeup, that the film leaves its element for a quick gulp of easy sentimentality. Whether accidental or deliberate, its citation of a famous Oscar-winning movie is a jarring wake-up just before the lights come on.
Ronan seems made for the role of Florence. She hides from carnality behind her slender figure and intellectual games, her matching blue undergarments and panicky glances. Howle is her perfect missing part, his Edward a rural Adonis whose physicality is constantly underlined, but whose mind is inquisitive and whose feelings are tender and easily hurt.
Sean Bobbitt’s stunning lighting simultaneously creates a feeling of the times as it leads away into psychological realms, like the iconic shot of Edward standing alone, a small figure on the beach, and gazing after Florence’s retreating figure. Dan Jones’ music track is right on cue between pieces of Schubert and songs by Chuck Berry.
Production companies: BBC Films, Number 9 Films
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough
Director: Dominic Cooke
Screenwriter: Ian McEwan
Producers: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley
Executive producers: Joe Oppenheimer, Thorsten Schumacher, Zygi Kamasa, Beth Pattinson, Chiara Gelardin, Norman Merry, Peter Hampden, Ian McEwan, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Suzie Davies
Costume designer: Keith Madden
Editor: Nick Fenton
Music: Dan Jones
Casting director: Nina Gold
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Presentations)
World sales: Rocket Science
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