For about an hour, “On Chesil Beach” seems like the most genteel sex comedy ever made. A movie that hems and haws and tries to avoid getting to the wedding-night bed, it starts out an a charming, intimate story of a young couple from the early 1960s whose naïveté and inexperience leads to a string of minor calamities as they approach the moment when two nervous kids will lose their virginity.
And then, in a sharp, shocking moment, “On Chesil Beach” becomes something darker, tougher and more tragic, and yanks it well out of the sex-comedy arena into an uncertain new place.
It’s not always a smooth landing, but director Dominic Cooke, novelist/screenwriter Ian McEwan and stars Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle make it a touching, bittersweet one.
Adapted from his own work by acclaimed British novelist McEwan (who was also represented at last year’s Toronto Film Festival with “The Children Act”), the film stars Ronan as a young violinist from Oxford and Howle as a more rough-hewn history student from London. It takes place in the moment in the ’60s before they became The Sixties, the same period of repression mixed with tantalizing promise that was the setting for “An Education” eight years ago.
For Florence and Edward (Ronan and Howle), the moments of promise are represented in small touches like a Chuck Berry song on the radio as they sit nervously in their honeymoon hotel room at the English seaside. They kiss, they stall, they fumble with zippers and then stall some more — and the movie is complicit in their delaying tactics, slipping into one flashback after another as if it also is none too anxious to get to the big moment.
As always, Ronan is completely winning, and Howle makes a good contrast — he’s a little more wordy, perhaps, but we know it’s mostly bluster.
When the moment of truth arrives for the young couple, though, the gentle laughs end. Florence bolts out of the honeymoon bed, we get flashes of a buried secret, and nothing is the same. It’s not for the couple and it’s not for the audience, as “On Chesil Beach” stops being a chronicle of ways to delay sex and turns into a chronicle of how not to recover from a bad moment.
The last third of the film, said McEwan in a post-screening Q&A in Toronto last September, differs dramatically from his original novel, using flash-forwards and tender glances to covey things that were depicted internally in the book.
First, the film jumps ahead to 1975 to a lovely record-store encounter that only involves one of the main characters. And then it jumps again to 2007 for an ending that manages to be affecting even if it’s been telegraphed for at least an hour, and hurt by old-age makeup that’s far more effective on Ronan than on Howle.
Director Cooke, to his credit, has a soft touch with McEwan, whose incisive work should have produced more top-notch movies by now. (“Atonement” was the best known, “The Comfort of Strangers” the darkest.) This is a story that begins in nervous bliss and ends in deep regret, and he makes it an uneven but moving journey.