Based on Ian McEwan's novel. In England in 1962, a young couple (Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle) finds their idyllic romance colliding with issues of sexual freedom and societal pressure, leading to an awkward and fateful wedding night..
Saoirse Ronan is no stranger to the writings of Ian McEwan; her career effectively launched out with Atonement and her stellar performance as Briony. That film, directed by Joe Wright and lensed by Seamus McGarvey, was made with such delicacy and beauty that it perfectly suited the tragedy and melodrama of the story. It's clear within ten minutes of watching On Chesil Beach that while it may have the same writer adapting his own work and at least one returning actor, it's not anything remotely close to Atonement. If anything, On Chesil Beach has more in line with a particularly drab and ineffective BBC teledrama. In fact, the scope of the story is so minute that it almost lends itself better to a stage adaptation than a cinematic experience.
We see Ronan, all nervous ticks and deer-in-headlights stance, as she tries to navigate physical intimacy with her husband, Billy Howle, and be what she believes is a dutiful wife. As the story eventually begins to unfurl, it's clear that there is a serious lack of communication between the two, up to the point where you're even questioning how they came together. As the film flits back to their first meeting and the burgeoning relationship, it's less about them and more about the construct of their individual pysche.
Howle's character is the son of a headmaster and a free-spirited painter - played brilliantly by Anne-Marie Duff - who suffers a horrific injury that leaves her in a state of psychosis, whilst Ronan's surroundings are as fastidious and starched as you'd expect to produce someone like her. It's pretty obvious stuff, and the endpoint of their relationship is ultimately so logical as to be boring. You know where it's headed, but the journey up to is so frustratingly glacial and ineffective in its emotional impact that you're really just following along out of a curiosity to see if what you've predicted is actually the way it plays out - and it does, right down to the painfully cliched time-jump ending.
Ronan and Howle's performances are neutered and pallid, but while they're working within that stricture well because it fits their characters, the direction from Dominic Cooke is equally so. His theatrical background may have allowed him to help craft the performances from both his leads that's as nuanced as it is, but there's nothing left over to make it look in any visually compelling. Sure, we're being shown a drab hotel next to a greyish beach and there's nothing sensuous or romantic about any of it, but there isn't even anything particularly compelling about it. It's all on the actors to elevate it, and while they do their level best, it's not enough to keep it from being anything more than a tedious drama that goes exactly where you'd expect it to go.