The Washington Post
On Chesil Beach
Cringe at a young couple’s honeymoon and equally disastrous communication.
If you are a regular fan of a certain type of film — say, the recent, handsome Chekhov adaptation “The Seagull,” with its literary pedigree, subtext-rich script, deeply nuanced psychological portraiture and theme of love gone wrong — you may find yourself experiencing a bit of deja vu. “On Chesil Beach,” the handsome new drama based on Ian McEwan’s subtext-laden, psychologically nuanced 2007 novella of love gone wrong, coincidentally also happens to feature two of “The Seagull’s” stars: Billy Howle and Saoirse Ronan.
Better yet, it opens with a shot of — wait for it — a seagull.
Set in 1962, on the jittery wedding night of two virginal recent Oxford grads, violinist Florence (Ronan) and historian Edward (Howle), the film maintains the structure of McEwan’s slender volume, intercutting between scenes set in and around the seaside honeymoon suite and flashbacks to the couple’s courtship. Opening with a meal of overcooked beef and boiled potatoes, and culminating in awkward precoitus (it can hardly be called foreplay) and an even more awkward attempt at consummation (one technically cannot even call it sex) the narrative attempts to dissect this disastrous encounter even as it goes south, almost in real time. For that reason, watching (or, for that matter, reading) “On Chesil Beach” can feel like observing a deli worker slice a small piece of rancid cured meat, in increasingly transparent slivers of prosciutto-like thinness, and then holding them up to the light for inspection.
Why is Florence so squeamish about physical intimacy? Flash back to scenes of her reading a sex manual, in horror, and interacting with her nasty father (Samuel West). Could there be something more to that relationship than meets the eye, or is it your imagination, desperate for an explanation that isn’t forthcoming? Why does Edward lash out in anger at Florence when his own inexperience is as much to blame as hers? Flash back to scenes revealing his temper.
And why, oh why, do these two young people not just sit down, take a deep breath and talk?
Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a movie then, would there? And talk they do, but in a way that only tosses gasoline on the smoldering heap of the relationship that is left after they run out of the hotel room to confront each other, in impotent rage and ineffectual attempts at compromise, on the titular beach.
Smartly directed by Dominic Cooke, who has previously mostly worked in British theater, from a script adapted by McEwan, “On Chesil Beach” is a fragile and, at times, frustrating thing. After all, one can only slice something so thin without it falling apart.
Is the film a commentary on life at the dawn of the 1960s, which ushered in an age of sexual frankness? An indictment of an educational system that ignores sex to its peril, and the almost tragicomic consequences of such willful ignorance?
It feels, at times, like both of those things, and neither. And somehow, oddly, more.
Like McEwan’s book, there are mysteries in “On Chesil Beach” that will never be answered. In the film, an epilogue — which goes on longer than is strictly necessary to make its point — underscores the sweet, ironic sadness of this strange little love story. For a love story it is, albeit not a happy one. In its own delicate way, like a piece of tear-soaked tissue paper, it holds the memory of heartbreak. R. At area theaters. Contains some sexual material and nudity. 110 minutes.