“On Chesil Beach” is a beautifully made film that is as difficult to write about as it is to watch, and it is inescapably hard to watch.
Yet the reasons it is difficult — a completely heartbreaking story brought to exquisite life via immaculate writing, directing and acting — are why it’s worth putting up with the pain.
The story of the fraught honeymoon of a young couple who are very much in love and very much at sea, “On Chesil Beach” reunites novelist Ian McEwan and luminous star Saoirse Ronan, whose memorable 2007 collaboration on “Atonement” resulted in numerous Oscar nominations, including the actress’ first.
Here under the able and discreet direction of Dominic Cooke, making his feature debut after a notable theater career, Ronan gives the kind of extraordinary performance we’ve come to expect, allowing us through looks and glances to see directly into young Florence Ponting’s soul.
Matching her in intensity as baffled husband Edward Mayhew is strong young theater actor Billy Howle, while veterans Emily Watson, Samuel West, Anne-Marie Duff and Adrian Scarborough are expert as two sets of very different parents.
The great gift of “On Chesil Beach” is to make us care about these two young people while showing us in unflinching detail where they are going astray.
So much so that at key moments, the film is as unsettling as any trendy horror item, creating genuine fear about watching what’s going on on the screen.
McEwan’s novel, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, is set in 1962, well before that celebrated decade began to swing. It starts at the honeymoon at a hotel on that beach in Dorset and periodically flashes back to Florence and Edward’s meeting and courtship.
Before we get inside the hotel, however, we eavesdrop on these two young people as they walk down the beach, with Edward, a major rock ’n’ roll fan, talking enthusiastically about why the blues works musically.
Florence is game to learn, but we and Edward see that she doesn’t really get it. “You are the squarest person in all of Western civilization,” he says, but you can also see he is mad about her all the same.
Florence, in fact, is quite involved in music, but of a very different sort. As lead violin of the just-starting Ennismore Quartet, she exhibits a confidence and a verve that is visible nowhere else in her life.
Part of the problem for Florence is her toxic parents, a wealthy, overbearing father (West) who wants to bludgeon any sense of freedom and possibility out of her, and a sneering mother (Watson) who asks witheringly about Edward, “Is he one of us?”
As for Edward, the son of a school headmaster (Scarborough), his parental difficulties are of a different sort. His once-brilliant bohemian artist mother (Duff) has suffered a debilitating brain injury, and dealing with her has consumed all the air in the room.
Florence and Edward meet only by the purest happenstance. Eager to tell someone, anyone about an academic success, Edward heads into Oxford, where he stumbles into a meeting of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and sees Florence.
The attraction between them is immediate and palpable, and their sun-dappled pre-marriage courtship is shown to be sweetness itself.
Also revealed is the way both these young people are earnest and aspirational, determined to play by adult rules they don’t quite understand and beyond desperate to always do the right thing, whether in relation to the unctuous hotel staff or to each other.
Looming over it all is the matter of sex, or more specifically a lack of familiarity or even knowledge in that area. The couple’s interlocking awkwardness, timidity and even fear is powerfully conveyed and painful to experience.
Though without a doubt in love, Florence and Edward have in a sense married without knowing one another, and how that ignorance plays out on the wedding weekend is the heart of the matter here.
Echoing the novel, “On Chesil Beach” lets us know what happens to this couple later in their lives, here using a few well chosen incidents as opposed to the book’s tapestry of details. In both areas, not surprisingly, McEwan’s brilliant, lapidary style carries the day.
‘On Chesil Beach’
Rating: R, for some sexual content and nudity
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: ArcLight Hollywood; the Landmark, West L.A.