Movie Review: A Marriage goes on the Rocks “On Chesil Beach”

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It was “love at first sight,” they remember — particularly English period piece kind of love.

They’re both ever so prim and proper, a very young couple mimicking the manners ingrained by generations of observing, or in her case, living in the upper class.

“If we have a girl, she shall be called ‘Chloe,'” she declares. And he’s entirely too polite and smitten make that worth debating. He recoils from the very idea of contradicting her.

“Am I being a bully?” Perish the thought.

As they honeymoon in a posh coastal hotel, too young to know the etiquette of formal “room service” in a stately resort where two waiters attend to you, in your room, the well-mannered repression reeks like the scent of 1960s English cuisine. And on this blighted wedding night, we start to fear where this marriage is going “On Chesil Beach.”

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This stately, intimate drama, adapted by Ian McEwan from his novel, puts two virgins in a hotel room in an age before sexual matters were widely discussed and understood pre-marriage, expecting them to work it out. Somehow.

They’re both smart. That’s how they met, the schoolmaster’s son (Billy Howle) and the upper class daughter (Saoirse Ronan) with plans for a subsidized career with a string quartet. He was bursting to tell even strangers he’d gotten “a first” in history, and she was the pretty young thing he met at a college CND meeting — “Committee for Nuclear Disarmament.”

She’s read up on the whole sex thing, though Florence and her sister (Bebe Cave) turned their noses up at the “revolting” textbook descriptions they were reading.

He is expecting shared enthusiasm will facilitate his completion of his husbandly duties.

And when that doesn’t happen, when everything from unzipping a dress to staring down an intimidating, crimson brocaded bedspread, with the pressure of sniggering waiters and everybody else knowing what they’re about to do gets the best of them, we fear that their wedding afternoon will never fold into a wedding night.

“On Chesil Beach” treats the romance that leads up to this crisis in glowing flashbacks with barely a hint of the trouble to come. Idyllic picnics, punting outings on a lake, her blushing dash to see him “in the country,” taking a bus and walking miles to his summer job, at the cricket grounds.

Her parents (an imperious Emily Watson, a sniffling snob Samuel West) may look down on his “class,” but Flo is the very picture of liberality. She meets his eyes, and kindness ensues.

But they both have secrets, other things “one simply doesn’t speak of” in the Britain of the day. His mother (Anne-Marie Duff) is given to painting and wandering the yard nude. She’s off in the head. Flo is nothing less than angelic to her, because Flo has family issues of her own.

Director Dominic Cooke (TV’s “The Hollow Crown”) keeps it all sedate and stately. Even the bitter argument that ensues, entirely too abruptly, takes on shades of class and decorum and lines that one must never cross.

Ronan gives Flo a brittle vulnerability in those argument, entrusting her powers of persuasion and her one trump card, “but we’re in love,” to save the day.

Howle, of “Dunkirk” and “The Sense of an Ending,” holds his own by showing bookish Ed’s defiant pride, backing their debate into a corner without even realizing it.

It’s kind of heartbreaking, the way what cannot be said aloud, their ignorance of what has happened and is happening, drives their actions. But I was put off by the third act’s abrupt brinkmanship, the soppy and unnecessary coda that leaves one feeling cheated.

Whatever the lovers are really fighting about, it’s the source novel the viewer may have quibbles with, not the production values (pristine) or performances (spot on). If you’re being cagey about characters’ tortured pasts, explaining those pasts and then abandoning those pitfalls for a future neither we nor the script can rationalize is as self-defeating as making a wedding day argument the make-or-break moment in a loving relationship.

The movie before it is rather undone by the third act that ends it.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: R, explicit sexual situations

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough

Credits: Directed by Dominic Cooke, script by Ian McEwan, based on his novel. A Bleecker Street release.

Running time: 1:50

 

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