On Chesil Beach (R)

Drama 110 min. May 18, 2018
By Bilge Ebiri
Ian McEwan adapted On Chesil Beach from his own 2007 novella, so it's a little odd to fault the film's screenwriter for losing what makes the original so powerful: its careful blend of sexual frankness and studied repression, the way its prose casts a melancholy glow over critical matters of whose hand went where and touched what. A movie can and should stand on its own, of course, but it still needs to find a way to give weight and scope to this intimate miniature. And while Dominic Cooke's film succeeds at much of what it attempts, I can't shake the feeling that there's a dimension missing.
The story centers on a wan little honeymoon on the Dorset coast in 1962. The young newlyweds are violin virtuoso Florence (Saoirse Ronan) and history grad Edward (Billy Howle), each very much in love with but still painfully awkward around the other.
For all their enlightenment and modernity, Edward and Florence are painfully ignorant about sex and unable to talk about it -- which, given their respective anxieties about what will happen once they're at last free to sleep together, makes for a potentially disastrous situation.

The setup is slender and simple, but it also demands precision. Cooke and McEwan have imagined the drab, conservative world of postwar England edging into the '60s fully and diligently, and both Howle and Ronan register emotions silently and delicately. But somewhere in this story about sex, even if it's really about the inability to have sex, there needs to be, well, sex -- or an honest, direct effort to deal with it. McEwan the novelist, it seems, isn't as coy about it as McEwan the screenwriter.
Dominic Cooke Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson, Samuel West Ian McEwan Bleecker Street

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