Photos | Bleecker Street Media / Universal Pictures
From left: Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan star in “On Chesil Beach,” an adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel about a newly married couple whose failure to consummate haunts their lives. Quentessential horror villain Michael Myers returns in the latest remake of the “Halloween” film franchise.
British novelist Ian McEwan has seen many of his novels turned into films, and what is deeply felt but subtly expressed on the page does not always survive the journey. He himself wrote the screenplay for “On Chesil Beach,” and the result is one of the most excruciating film experiences in recent memory.
Gifted actress Saoirse Ronan had one of her early breakout roles in another McEwan adaptation, “Atonement,” a much larger-scale story that also involves sexual misunderstandings and their tragic consequences, but that one spanned a war and was a much more compelling story.
The subject of “On Chesil Beach” is the restrictive sexual mores of British society in the early 1960s (are we having fun yet?), and this concept is explored through the lens of one loving, virginal young couple on their honeymoon. Both actors are flawlessly real and natural throughout: Ronan as Florence, an intelligent and exacting musician with posh intellectual parents, and Billy Howle as Edward, an earnest historian whose mother suffered a head injury that causes her to walk around naked a lot and keep a very messy house. This unpleasant movie is not the fault of these actors; Howle especially lays it all on the line, and Ronan is always a pure emotional presence onscreen.
It’s a story that revolves around one night in their lives, but one with lasting repercussions, and the structure of the film is what sinks it. As we crawl through the hours leading up to a less than positive consummation of their marriage, the film flashes back to seminal events in their lives and their romance. In these scenes, we see an interesting film about two interesting people falling in love, and this does make their sexual mismatch all the more painful for the viewer.
But the back and forth structure, as we inch toward the climax, is possibly more excruciating for us than it is for the onscreen lovers, and the way it builds up is borderline comic. The point of the film is that after a bad first attempt to connect, the otherwise loving couple never succeed in doing so, but the grindingly slow build up to this “event” makes the stakes seem awfully small. We spent all this time flashing back and forth, and then the big moment was that no one properly prepared these neophytes for what to do and they were embarrassed and horrified? Honestly, I thought someone was going to get killed.
There are so many really good scenes in “On Chesil Beach” that it’s frustrating to consider what an overall dreadful experience it is. A scene in which Florence reads an instruction book about the physical realities of marriage aloud to her younger sister is absolutely wonderful, their frank disbelief perfect. The often nude mother (Anne-Marie Duff) delivers heroically in all her scenes. But then we have to go back to that awkward hotel room. I wanted to run away screaming, just like one of the characters does.
McEwan specializes in the classy catastrophe, on various scales, and this one is decidedly small scale. While this one dreadful night does change their lives forever, the structure of the film telling this story manipulates the balance of the plot too much.
“On Chesil Beach” looks like a tasteful period piece you might rent with mom, but things take a graphic turn, and you do not want to have a family member in the room with you when they do. Then the end of the film is blighted with some truly ghastly old-age prosthetics, and all is lost. For flawlessly costumed literary adaptations with many of these same gifted cast members, you have much better options, from “Brooklyn” to “The Sense of an Ending,” both of which I recommend over “On Chesil Beach.”
“On Chesil Beach” is currently available to rent.