“Did you think it was love at first sight?” Edward (Billy Howle) asks his girlfriend Florence (Saoirse Ronan) in a park setting that under other circumstances might be seen as romantic, but hold a foreboding sense of heartbreak in “On Chesil Beach.” An adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novel about a couple on different timelines was always going to be a tall order to satisfyingly bring to the screen, yet in the pause before Florence gives her answer, a cryptic “Actually, I’m beginning to think I did” director Dominic Cooke and a gifted pair of actors fulfill the potential of a knotty drama where platitudes can be read as warnings that this relationship perhaps isn’t meant to be.
A doomed romance may not seem like the most fun time at the movies, yet in the hands of Cooke and McEwan, writing the film’s script, there’s considerable levity to be found in the awkwardness that ensues on Edward and Florence’s wedding night, for which neither is prepared. Lingering bellboys and zippers that get stuck only underline the growing discomfort the two feel as they begin to acknowledge they are likely more in love with the idea of each other more than who they are currently in the flesh, with the film cutting back to their courtship to see the seeds of its ultimate destruction. On opposite ends of the class spectrum, the two are both interested in what the other is lacking – in Edward’s case, stability away from a mother (Anne Marie-Duff) who suffers from mental issues, and for Florence, a freedom from the expectations of well-to-do parents, and besides they share an appreciation for history and science. Yet before the question of “Will you marry me?” was popped, it becomes clear a question of what they actually want out of a relationship with one another has gone unasked, leaving it up to the honeymoon for the reality to set in.
Although the film follows its lead couple in being a bit too polite at first, “On Chesil Beach” grows into a drama as provocative as it is elegant. In a particular coup, “12 Years a Slave” cinematographer Sean Bobbitt breaks the careful composition of nearly every frame to make sure something is obscured as if it’s the thing that can’t be seen by one half of the couple. Cooke is wise to express the ineffable needs of Edward and Florence in touch, as the camera will draw closer to curled toes and tentative hand-holding during supposed moments of affection, while the two think they are saying all the right things and their bodies making the words hollow. Despite the stakes, the film largely eschews feeling heavy-handed, with the exception of a series of flash-forwards that threaten to turn the beautiful bittersweetness that one leaves the hotel with into something slightly saccharine, though what “On Chesil Beach” has built up is too strong, in addition to a powerful final shot, to be diminished.
Ronan attacks Florence with the same ferocity she brought to the last time she spoke McEwan’s barbed dialogue as Briony in “Atonement,” caught between a desire to control her own destiny and an ingrained decorum that prevents her from articulating it anywhere but while playing the violin. (Notably, Esther Yoo, the featuring violinist who vividly says what Florence cannot with her high-pitched solos in the Dan Jones’ agreeably cascading score, is the first name to come up in the end credits after the actors.) Meanwhile, Edward may be all thumbs when it comes to Florence, but Howle’s performance is quite dextrous, selling what Florence actually sees in him as well as why he’ll never be right for her. Alas, the two characters may never quite be in sync with each other, yet the actors playing them find harmony in the discord, making falling out of love look as easy as if Edward and Florence really had fallen in love at first sight.
“On Chesil Beach” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play once more at the Toronto Film Festival on September 8th at 12:45 pm at the Bell Lightbox 1.