‘On Chesil Beach’: As waves roar, a good-looking love story crashes

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Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and Edward (Bill Howle) face issues during their honeymoon in “On Chesil Beach.” | BLEECKER STREET

What a prestigious, understated, classy inducement to take a nap.

“On Chesil Beach” is a pedigreed period-piece drama, with a screenplay by Ian McEwan (from his own bestselling novel) and a fine cast that includes the invaluable Saoirse Ronan.

It is an earnest and well-photographed film (the cinematographer is the talented Sean Bobbitt), featuring beautifully appointed interiors, and beach scenes so vibrant we can almost smell the sea air and feel the sand under our feet.

But on more than one occasion, this looks and feels like a parody — something you’d see on “Saturday Night Live,” with the star-crossed lovers trading heavy revelations and then staring silently in different directions as the clouds gather and the waves roar.

“On Chesil Beach” kicks off in 1962, with Ronan’s Florence and Billy Howle’s Edward on their wedding night in a rather stuffy seaside hotel in southern England. (The jerky waiters can be heard just outside their room, laughing and joking at the couple’s innocence — and in particular Billy’s lack of sophistication.)

Edward and Florence are very nervous about consummating their marriage. We know this because we get lingering close-ups of his feet tapping under the dinner table and also of HER feet tapping under the dinner table.

Also, the conversation is polite to the point of being excruciating.

We’ll return to that honeymoon night time and again during the first two-thirds of “On Chesil Beach,” but we’ll also have to contend with a looming case of plot whiplash from all the flashbacks to the courtship of Edward and Florence — and to their respective upbringings.

She’s a talented classical musician from a rigid, fairly well-off family. He’s the working-class son of a schoolteacher father and an artist mother who has never been right after a freak accident.

“She was brain-damaged,” says Billy in voice-over as he recalls when he learned the truth about what was causing his mother to behave so erratically. “She was brain-damaged, and I wasn’t. I wasn’t my family, I was me. I felt kind of excited, like my life had just begun.”

Meanwhile, we learn about Florence’s youth and her dominant, perhaps abusive father.

Back to the wedding night. Although Florence has grown up to be a brilliant musician and a smart, kind, lovely young woman, she is terrified by even the thought of intimacy with Edward.

As “Chesil Beach” bounces back and forth, and back and forth again, between the increasingly awful particulars of the wedding night and flashbacks giving reason for why things are going so spectacularly wrong, we can’t help but wonder why in the world these two would ever even consider getting married in the first place. (Even the scenes of their supposedly giddy courtship seem weighted down by their respectful internal luggage.)

Even the soundtrack is often heavy-handed. After a break-up scene, the appearance of B.B. King’s “The Thrill Is Gone” is pure overkill.

“Chesil Beach” really skids off-road in the final scenes, which flash forward to 1975 and then to 2007.

I’ll say no more about what transpires other than to gently point out we’ve seen better old-age makeup in many a movie.

And even quite a few “SNL” sketches.


Bleecker Street presents a film directed by Dominic Cooke and written by Ian McEwan, based on his novel. Rated R (for some sexual content and nudity). Running time: 110 minutes. Opens Friday at the Landmark Century Centre and AMC River East.

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