The Washington Post

On Chesil Beach

Cringe at a young couple’s honeymoon and equally disastrous communicat­ion.

- BY MICHAEL O’SULLIVAN michael.osullivan@washpost.com

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.

 ?? ROBERT VIGLASKY/BLEECKER STREET ?? In “On Chesil Beach,” a drama based on a novella by Ian McEwan, Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle play newlyweds who struggle to establish physical intimacy during their seaside honeymoon.
ROBERT VIGLASKY/BLEECKER STREET In “On Chesil Beach,” a drama based on a novella by Ian McEwan, Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle play newlyweds who struggle to establish physical intimacy during their seaside honeymoon.

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