Saoirse Ronan, the 24-year-old Irish actress and three-time Oscar nominee, seems anointed to make every film she’s in exponentially better – and On Chesil Beach is no exception. She’s glorious, as she always is. But even Ronan can’t totally cut through the academic stuffiness that comes with this posh literary adaptation. It’s based on a superb 2007 novel by acclaimed author Ian McEwan, who also wrote the screenplay – which means he shows a tad too much regard for the source material. This is the sort of period-piece material that needs to break free from the page and find its own footing on screen. But British theater director Dominic Cooke, in his feature film debut, is careful not to rattle the teacups. Every plot detail is so carefully judged and art-directed that the life leaks out of it. Too bad.
The time is 1962, just before the Sixties started swinging. People have sex, but no one talks about it, especially not Florence Ponting (Ronan) and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle). The virginal newlyweds are on their honeymoon by the sea, both agonizing about the big moment that awaits them in bed. While they make small talk and squirm over dinner in their hotel room, Cooke lays on the flashbacks. Talk about coitus interruptus.
These two recent college graduates come from distinct backgrounds. Florence, who plays classical violin in a string quartet, is a child of wealth. Her rigid father (Samuel West) owns a factory and her snob mother (Emily Watson) is a professor of philosophy. Edward, a bit gruff around the edges, isn’t exactly from the wrong side of the tracks – just the less suitable side for a girl of Florence’s breeding. He wants to write history books that sell. His good-natured dad (Adrian Scarborough) is a humble schoolmaster. As for his mother (the marvelous Anne-Marie Duff), she suffered a head injury in Edward’s youth that causes her to wander distractedly around the house, always cheerful but sometimes naked.
Still with us? What we learn is that Florence is a sweetheart with Edward’s mom, a fact he appreciates, though Edward has a temper and Florence is hiding a secret about her father that will have repercussions.
Meanwhile, back at the honeymoon. Florence and Edward are still squirming, sometimes humorously. But the chaotic business of first-time carnality frustrates and enrages the groom. Not to mention that the sex manuals Florence has been reading clearly left out the chapter on premature ejaculation. She offers Edward a lifetime of devotion, just no more of that. On the beach, they argue instead of talk, causing a rift that may be impossible to bridge, and it’s here that the film comes thrillingly alive. Ronan and Howle, now also costarring in The Seagull, are heartbreakingly good as a couple who can’t see past their innocence and inexperience. He is definitely is an actor to watch (see also: Dunkirk); she is, of course, capable of miracles and you watch Ronan with the rapt attention you give to someone with a God-given talent.
On Chesil Beach falters badly in its final section, when years pass and we see the duo in clumsy old-age makeup that’s meant to do the acting for them. What are Florence and Edward feeling? You can find it in McEwan’s novel in passages suffused with regret and poetic longing. On screen, the filmmakers strand us with clichés of melodrama. It’s a shabby tradeoff. There is a soulful core in this story of love found and lost. You just have to read the book to find it.