On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beach ★★★

Novelist Ian McEwan (Atonement) adapts his novella set during a single hour in a hotel room into this screenplay that’s filled with flashbacks upon flashbacks to flesh out the personal histories of the newlywed protagonists. But unfortunately, the couple remains largely internalized on the pages of McEwan’s best-selling story. Saoirse Ronan and relative newcomer Billy Howle (both currently appearing in Michael Mayer’s Chekhov adaptation, The Seagull) take center stage in first-time director Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach. The year is 1962, and Florence Ponting (Ronan) is a wealthy young classical violinist who first locks eyes with Edward Mayhew (Howle), a history scholar of humble origins, at a nuclear protest. It’s love at first sight, not only for the two lovers, but also for Edward’s schoolteacher father, Lionel (Adrian Scarborough), who immediately pulls his son aside after meeting Florence, instructing him to “marry this girl.” Florence also brings out the best in Edward’s mother, Marjorie (Anne-Marie Duff), whose brain damage leads to a nudist streak. Florence’s conservative mother, Violet (Emily Watson), on the other hand, has enough wits about her to be mortified by this relationship, which builds to a breaking point during the newlyweds’ quarrel that the film is built around. Throughout the narrative juggling, Cooke manages to cast a nice spell, grounded by a solid sense of time and place. Sadly, that all breaks down with the introduction of rubbery old age makeup, which robs the film’s coda of some of its heartbreak. (At Boston Common, and Kendall Square.)

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