It might seem like Saoirse Ronan can make any film worth seeing. Sadly, the existence of “The Lovely Bones” disproves this.
But even in Peter Jackson’s misfired adaptation of that best-selling novel, Ronan was an electric presence. As she has moved from child performer (Oscar-nominated for “Atonement”) to adult actress (Oscar-nominated for “Lady Bird”), she’s barely placed a foot wrong.
In “On Chesil Beach,” she is again the best thing about a mixed-bag movie. Based on a novella by “Atonement” author Ian McEwan, this film examines the consequences of an anxious wedding night.
Ronan plays Florence, a bright and kind-hearted young woman; relative newcomer Billy Howle plays Edward, the bridegroom. It’s 1962, and they’re taking (“enjoying” isn’t the right word) their first evening as newlyweds in a seaside hotel in the south of England. The time period is key, as the repressed society locks these two into their roles.
Flashbacks provide background: how they met, the tragedy of Edward’s brain-damaged mother (eerie performance by Anne-Marie Duff), the rigid life of Florence’s parents (Emily Watson and Samuel West).
One problem with the movie is director Dominic Cooke’s wobbly tone. Early on, there are comedic scenes involving the intrusive hotel wait staff. The early days of Florence and Edward’s courtship are treated lightly.
It’s only later that the flashbacks darken. In a conversation between Florence and a sympathetic priest, his awareness of her marital hesitation hints at fear on her part. Yet even this scene ends with a touch of slapstick.
Nothing prepares you for the film’s true climax, a lacerating showdown on Chesil Beach between Florence and Edward. This is a striking setting — the pebbly beach is separated from the mainland by a lagoon, making the characters look even more alienated than they already are.
McEwan has a melancholy idea in this scenario: that certain life decisions turn on the inability to speak up at the right moment. Florence says something, but not quite enough; Edward can’t speak at all; and their world is broken because of that.
The movie takes this powerful idea and screws it up, with a series of scenes that project us years into the future. These are so poorly handled, it’s surprising that a first-rate writer like McEwan has his name on them.
Ronan conveys quiet urgency, of someone who wants to escape, but doesn’t know how, or where to. If the film is about troubled waters beneath serene surfaces, she understands that completely.
She generates a lot of the film’s interest, although it’s rather one-sided — Howle, one of the ensemble in “Dunkirk,” isn’t playing at Ronan’s level. These days, not many actors are.
‘On Chesil Beach’ (2 stars)
Saoirse Ronan owns this otherwise uneven adaptation of Ian McEwan’s novella. A couple takes their wedding evening at a seaside hotel in 1962, but flashbacks reveal how they got there, and the happy day darkens as it goes along — to an unfortunately bungled ending. The film’s tone is all over the place, and co-star Billy Howle isn’t at Ronan’s level.
Rating: R, for nudity, subject matter
Opening: Pacific Place, Lincoln Square