In almost every Ian McEwan story there’s a terrible, decisive moment — a fatal word or misstep that divides everything that follows into before and after. In Atonement, it was a little girl’s urge to tell a lie; in Enduring Love, a hand that slipped from the tether of a hot air balloon.
It seems mean to reveal exactly how that moment arrives in On Chesil Beach, but also fair to warn that it will. Adapted by McEwan from his own Booker Prize-winning 2007 novella, the movie stars Saoirse Ronan (miles away from her unleashed Ladybird) and Billy Howle (Dunkirk, The Seagull) as naïve newlyweds on the cusp of their first night together as man and wife in circa-1962 England.
Her Florence is sweetly demure, with the hint of something steelier at her core; a gifted cellist with a face as smooth and open as an obelisk. His Edward is a little rougher around the edges, a fan of Chuck Berry and fistfights, but clearly in love. As the movie opens, they’ve gotten through the (unseen) ceremony, and are settling into dinner in their honeymoon suite — as if anyone would want to sit down to a Flintstone-size shank of roast beef and boiled potatoes before being introduced to the mysteries of sex.
As the narrative moves back and forth between the hotel room and their courtship a clearer picture comes together, though the nuance of McEwan’s storytelling inevitably loses something in its transition from the page. (Particularly a crucial bit about Florence’s upbringing, which is heavily implied in the book but nowhere here onscreen.)
Director Dominic Cooke is mostly known for his Olivier Award-winning theater work, but Chesil never feels stagey or static. It’s beautifully shot, and he pulls lovely performances from both his leads. If the drama stumbles into sentimentality near the end, it can almost be forgiven as course correction for a storyline whose pivotal turn is so wrenching, and so utterly avoidable, it’s actually physically painful to watch — the kind of movie whose quiet power you can’t help but appreciate, even as you know you’ll probably never want to sit through it again. B