“This was still the era – it would end later in that famous decade – when to be young was a social encumbrance, a mark of irrelevance, a faintly embarrassing condition for which marriage was the beginning of a cure.”
So reads an early passage in Ian McEwan’s resoundingly melancholy 2007 novel “On Chesil Beach,” set mostly in 1962, which has been respectfully adapted by McEwan, acting as screenwriter, and Dominic Cooke, a renowned English theater director making his movie debut.
The couple referenced in that passage is Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan), a gifted classical violinist in her 20s from an upper-class family, and Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle), a London history student of much more modest background. There is an instant attraction when they first meet: She’s handing out anti-nuclear leaflets, much to her conservative parents’ displeasure, and Edward, who has a low-key scruffiness and prefers Chuck Berry to Mozart, is immediately drawn to her vim.
The film opens with the lead-up to the couple’s wedding night in an old Georgian hotel on a rather remote stretch of Chesil Beach in Dorset, England.
From there it cuts back and forth between scenes of their courtship and the disastrous way in which that connubial night plays out.
At first it appears that the largest impediment facing Florence and Edward is that old standby, the British class system. Florence’s father (Samuel West) is a bristly businessman with little time for niceties. After it becomes clear that his daughter is smitten with Edward, he takes the boy out to the tennis court and humiliatingly trounces him. Her mother (Emily Watson), an Oxford don, is somewhat more obliging, but her interactions with Edward are laced with condescension.
By contrast, Edward’s father (Adrian Scarborough) is a decent, middle-class sort. His mother (Anne-Marie Duff), an art historian, was severely injured in an accident and requires careful attention, which Florence, when she visits, amply provides. Seeing this, Edward’s father tells his son, “Marry that girl.” Seems like sound advice.
But the class differences pale beside a deeper obstacle. Both Edward and Florence are virgins, and despite their love for each other, their courtship is a fumbling, tentative transaction. This was by no means atypical for that era, but it makes their wedding night more of a crucible than a blissful consummation. Edward’s ardency is not matched by Florence’s, for whom sex, which she only knows about from a clandestine sex manual, is an abhorrence.
Up until this extended wedding night aftermath, “On Chesil Beach” is a highly acceptable, somewhat starched drama of crossed love. But the film fully comes into its own on the beach. Edward and Florence, in fits of rage, recrimination, disbelief, and woe, go at each other. It’s horrible to watch because these are two good people, and we can see that this fight is irrevocable. Both Howle and Ronan are tremblingly good in this scene. Suddenly, and without our full awareness, the movie has morphed into a tragedy.
The filmmakers erred, I think, by attaching a coda to the proceedings that sentimentalizes what we’ve just witnessed. And in general, the flashback structure is too herky-jerky for the film’s more delicate emotional modulations. But the power of that final face-off is so wrenching that none of these cavils matter very much. You watch Edward and Florence on the beach and you want to enter into the screen and plead with the couple, “Stop. Please stop.”
Rated R for strong sex references, violence, and gore.